Using Forums Effectively: Ways to improve engagement

By Katharine Horne

This post originally appeared on the University of Sussex Technology Enhanced Learning Blog. It is being republished here with permission.

In a Virtual Learning Environment such as Study Direct (Moodle), forums can be a great way to share course information, build community and allow students to easily share resources and ideas.

Last year our post The benefits of lurking in higher education explored the ways in which learners engage with forums.

However, often these forums can seem quite sparse and neglected. So how can we encourage students to actively engage with forums? Below are a few key tips to help you make the most of the forums in your modules.

Set out clear expectations

It is important to set out clear expectations at the beginning of the module, both expectations that you have of students as well as what students can expect from you. Make it clear how often you would like students to contribute to the forum as well as your commitment to monitor the forum and respond to queries and requests. Be sure to set out clear instructions and guidelines in the description of your forum. In these instructions you might also want to ask students to read previous posts before asking a question to check if their question has already been answered. Also encourage students to give threads clear titles so that information can be found easily. This will avoid you having to write the same response numerous time, and might even cut down the number of questions you receive by email!

Set specific tasks


flickr photo by tecabh shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Focussed tasks give students more reason to write a forum post. You could set exercises in seminars and lectures that involve students reflecting on the week or finding an interesting journal article or news item and sharing it with the group.

This could also be an opportunity for students to work in pairs or study groups, for example completing peer review exercises, something that again may encourage students to engage with forums whilst building a sense of community among the cohort. You could start off by asking students to introduce themselves to the group, this helps students get used to using the forum and alerts them to where it is positioned on the site.

Consider separate forums

You may want to think about creating separate forums for different functions, for example one forum to deal with general requests around admin issues and one for topic discussions. However, be careful not to overpopulate your module site with too many forums.

Consider group size

You may want to consider the number of students that have subscribed to a forum. If your lecture size is 500 and all students are actively engaging, this would make for a very busy forum! In this case, splitting your students up into smaller groups, perhaps seminar groups, would be a better option. At the same time, a group of five or six would probably result in less interaction as the group is so small. Think carefully about what would work best for your students. See this Study Direct FAQ – How do I set up groups? – if you would like help setting up groups in your module site.

Add a first post

A blank canvas can be quite daunting, it may be a good idea to add the first post on your forum yourself. This could be an introduction and welcome to the course or an ice breaker activity for students to complete perhaps asking them to explain their interest in the module.

Remind students

Remind students throughout the module to continue their contributions to the forum. A small reminder in your lecture slides or during seminars might be useful as will the specific forum tasks and activities mentioned above.

Encourage commenting


flickr photo by jamespia shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

Forums are about building interaction between students. You can encourage this by getting students to not only author posts but also comment on others’ posts, building a dialogue between students. You might also want to encourage students who ask particular (non-personal) questions via email to add these to the forum so that other students can benefit from the answers.

In Study Direct, the University of Sussex’s Virtual Learning Environment, there are four different forum types to choose from:

  • A single simple discussion – this forum type allows for one topic to be discussed and appears on a single page, this is useful for short discussions that are focussed around a single topic
  • Standard forum for general use – this is the most appropriate for a general purpose forum and allows both students and tutors to post a new topic at anytime
  • Each person post one discussion – each person subscribed to the forum can post one new discussion topic which everyone can then reply to, this could be used for example to ask each student to reflect on the week’s topic
  • Q and A Forum – this forum type requires students to create their own post before being able to view other students’ posts, after they have added their post students can then review and respond to other posts

Forums can be a positive way of developing a dialogue, creating community and allowing students to reflect and feedback. Furthermore, forums are a useful way of turning your module site from a passive to an active environment and have the added benefit of reducing the number of emails you receive from students! If you would like further help with using forums please contact your school’s Learning Technologist or email

Ideas about Assessing Student Participation

Recently we completed another Instructional Skills Workshop (ISW) at our Centre.  This an intensive and engaging 4-day workshop where faculty and instructors learn about and practice participatory learning strategies, and upon completion, receive a certificate of completion that is nationally recognized.

As the workshop unfolds, important questions are brought forward by participants.   Given our focus on student participation in the ISW, the question of how to (and whether to) give participation marks arises.  While the answers depend on the context of the course, the teaching approach, and the design of the learning experiences and assessments, specific ideas from others can help us arrive at ways of doing this that can fit our individual teaching.

So, when I came upon a link to this blog post by David Gooblar –  I thought it was worth highlighting to our recent ISW graduates, and to readers of Educatus.

In particular Gooblar links to an article by Tony Docan-Morgan that includes a participation log template that can be found here.

We would welcome more ideas from our readers on this teaching topic.

Building Capacity for Effective Group Work

By Megan Marcoux, Student Employment and Career Centre

A session on this topic will be held during the Fall Fortnight on Monday August 22, 2016 from 1 – 4 PM. Register here.

Over the past several years, the Student Employment and Career Centre (SECC) has had the opportunity to expand its in-house offerings to support teaching and learning in classrooms across campus. The work has leveraged tools like the StrengthsFinder and Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) to give groups of students the opportunity to enhance their self-awareness and deepen their competency development in the classroom. One student competency that has been focused on and developed with great success is the ability to work more effectively in teams, which is not only included in the learning outcomes associated with the Learning Goals of the U of S Learning Charter, but also in the Career Readiness Competencies outlined by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). These documents highlight the necessity of effective group work for success in both learning and the world of work.

The StrengthsFinder is a 177-item assessment based on positive psychology that supports individuals in identifying their most natural ways of thinking, feeling and behaving (i.e., their raw talents). Assessment results provide an outline and descriptions of an individual’s Top 5 Talent Themes (out of a possible 34), which have the potential to “serve as the foundation of strengths development” (Gallup, 2014). Reports for the assessment include a Signature Themes Report, which provides general outlines for each of the Top 5, as well as an Insight and Action-Planning Guide, which weaves together all five themes to produce unique descriptions for each and outlines steps for strengths develop.

While the StrengthsFinder helps students identify their raw talents and develop them into strengths, the MBTI supports students in better understanding their personality through measuring four pairs of opposing preferences. These preferences speak to how individuals prefer to focus their attention (i.e. Introversion or Extraversion), take in information (i.e. Sensing or Intuition), make decisions (i.e. Thinking or Feeling), and deal with the world around them (i.e. Judging or Perceiving). This assessment has a longstanding history of supporting team development through enhancing people’s understanding of their own and others’ preferences for communication, work styles, etc.

From first-year Arts and Science classrooms to a fourth-year Nutrition capstone course, ESB classrooms to Grad Studies courses, the SECC has had opportunities to work with instructors and incorporate the assessments into a variety of course curricula. Through interactive workshops, students are able to further understand the theory and language behind the assessments, reflect on their results, and engage with their peers to understand how their strengths/personality can be supported and leveraged to maximize their learning and development, both in the classroom and beyond.

First Day of Class: Providing students a relevant and engaging initial taste

Sessions related to this topic will be held during the Fall Fortnight:

  • Why Teach With Top Hat? (Monday, August 22, 2016 from 10-10:25 AM) – Register Here
  • Building Student Capacity for Effective Group Work (Monday, August 22, 2016 from 1-4 PM) – Register Here 
  • Preparing & Personalizing Your Syllabus (Tuesday, August 23, 2016 from 1-2:50 PM) – Register here
  • Exploring Methods for Preventing & Detecting Plagiarism (Wednesday, August 24, 2016 from 10-11:30 AM) – Register Here
  • Attention & Memory: Increasing Student’ Learning (Friday, August 26, 2016 from 9-10 AM) – Register Here
  • Assignments, Rubrics, and Grading in Blackboard – It’s Easier Than You Think (Thursday, September 1, 2016 from 3-4:30 PM) – Register Here

As people, our perceptions and routines are engrained early on for places and people. Our experiences and decisions shaped by earlier ones. Find yourself or your students returning to their same seat? Initially excellent (or poor) meals at a restaurant tinting later dining experiences? Buying a book when the first few sentences catch your attention?

The first day of class is similar: it sets the focus of the course; instills interest; sets the context including layout and participation levels; invites selecting (or dropping) a class; and builds initial credibility and approachability.

As the recent Chronicle Vitae post by Kevin Gannon (Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching & Learning and Professor of History at Grand View University) noted just reading the syllabus and ending class is not enough. You miss modeling how you expect students to engage in the classroom, and missing the opportunity for intriguing questions and enthusiasm for the topic. As Kevin Gannon notes “Whatever your plan for the first day, students should get some idea of what’s expected of them throughout the semester, and also have the opportunity to discern their place in the class and its activities.”

One example of engaging students in the content of the course and the level of participation and thinking you expect to see, is highlighting one of the essential ideas of the course in a way that is immediately relevant to students. Create that initial, individual, motivating connection to what they will learn.

keyholeAllow your students to glimpse the potential and be curious about where it will lead.

Highlighting a core focus of the course

1) Identify key principles, lessons or concepts that are foundational to your course

  • Resources: decoding the disciplines & threshold concept literature in nearly every discipline offers ideas to select from
  • Stats class example: ability to read descriptions of quantitative research to identify and critique reported and missing components of data description and analysis
  • Qualitative research class example: all forms of reporting involve speaking for the other person, including choosing what is conveyed and how.

2) Convey the hook of curiosity & why it is inherently meaningful to them.

  • Tip: Each discipline arose to explore and work on essential and important inquiry. As experts in the discipline, the importance is obvious but often hard to articulate to a novice.
  • Resources: Reflect on what makes this topic inherently so important and relevant. Not sure how to describe it? Try talking it out with a colleague outside your discipline (or one of us in the GMCTE).
  • Stats class example: a sample online news report of a relevant hot topic based on “research”
  • Qualitative research class example: meet and then introduce a classmate

3) Connect what students already know with what they will learn

  • Tip: Having a clear framework early on in a course allows students to organize their new ways of thinking and new information. Referring to the example, diagram, key ideas throughout the course reinforce them and help to encode new memories.
  • Resource: The meaning step in 4MAT approach to lesson planning. Attention and memory literature. There is an upcoming fortnight session on Friday August 26th.
  • Stats class example: identifying the statistical & research pieces in the news story provided and missing pieces. The initial step for critiquing.
  • Qualitative research class example: experiencing the sense of responsibility and uncertainty when speaking for another person (especially when they are sitting beside you). Wondering did they say enough or too much? Were they accurate or misinterpreted? And then connecting it with the key idea of self & research within qualitative research methods.

Photograph courtesy of David Hetre under a CC-BY license.

Stories from Librarian and Faculty Partnerships

By Kristin Bogdan, Librarian, College of Engineering

Sessions related to this topic will be held during the Fall Fortnight:

  • Integrating Digital Information Literacy Into Courses (Wednesday August 31, 2016 from 9 – 11 AM) – Register here
  • Stories From Librarian and Faculty Partnerships (Thursday September 1, 2016 from 1- 2:30 PM) – Register here

Students should be equipped to be life-long learners. Ensuring that students receive information literacy sessions, particularly those integrated within their courses, will foster life-long learning. Information literacy (IL) is “a set of abilities requiring individuals to recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information” (ACRL). IL is no longer just about finding peer-reviewed articles in library databases. Teaching students how to critically evaluate sources like Wikipedia, and how to get the most out of using online tools like Google Scholar helps them add important tools to their research toolbox. As scholarly communication channels change, students should be taught how to find articles, books, and data within the library system as well as the other sources that they will have access to regardless of where their careers take them.

Librarians on campus are well equipped to teach information literacy skills and competencies. When faculty and librarians collaborate to offer these sessions they create life-long, information literate students.

How do we offer integrated library sessions?

An example can be seen in the ongoing collaboration between Donna Beneteau, Departmental Assistant in Mining, and Kristin Bogdan, Science and Engineering Librarian. Donna and Kristin collaborated to provide instruction to an engineering design class where students were required to write an engineering feasibility report. These reports are grey literature, which is sometimes indexed in major article databases but is also found in other sources like the websites of government agencies and corporations. In order for Donna’s students to write an appropriate report they needed to first see how those reports looked when they are produced by practicing engineers.

Donna and Kristin did a session on advanced Google searching, where Kristin demonstrated where to look for the reports and Donna talked about the reports themselves. Students were then given time and assistance in finding the reports they needed for their project. These are search skills that will help the students in their professional careers, where they may not have access to library resources.

This is just one example of collaboration between instructors and librarians. The world of information is changing quickly to include sources that do not fit in the classic academic frameworks. Students will benefit from faculty and librarian collaborations as they will be well equipped with tools to find the information they need.

Collaborations between instructors and librarians can lead to rich classroom experiences for everyone involved. In a world where students are bombarded with information from all directions, it is important to teach them how to filter not only based on the legitimacy of the source but also on the relevancy of their work.

3 Ideas for Promoting Academic Honesty

With Elana Geller (Student Learning Services at the University Library) & Heather M. Ross (GMCTE)

A session on this topic will be held during the Fall Fortnight on Wednesday August 24, 2016. Register here.

Beauty of Reading
#1 Student skill development (Libraries)

Most students will make the right choices given enough knowledge. In order to support students attaining this knowledge the University Library maintains a number of resources including a citation guide, which can be accessed at Students can also ask questions about citations at the Research Help Desk and Writing Centre, either in person or online. The Library is also looking into the creation of a tool that would have more breadth and would organize academic integrity information in an easy to use format. This tool would go beyond citation styles, to include information on collaboration, possibly specific field or discipline content, and policies. This endeavour will be one of collaboration. If you have any advice about what you would like to see in such a tool please contact Elana Geller at

#2 Technologies to detect potential plagiarism (GMCTE)

Both students and instructors have an interest in preventing and detecting potential plagiarism. For instructors, cutting and pasting questionable passages can assist in detecting materials that may have been taken from websites, journals, and other resources found online. In addition, SafeAssign is a copied text detection tool available within Blackboard. While this can be used for comparing student work to other works found online for the purpose of identifying potential plagiarism, it has great power as a teaching tool. If faculty set SafeAssign so that student can submit and then make changes based on the report, students can learn from their errors.  For more information about these issues, how to use SafeAssign following U of S guidelines, and how to use SafeAssign and Google for plagiarism detection and as learning tools, please contact Heather Ross at

#3 Assessment design (GMCTE)

When students regard what they are being asked to produce to represent relevant, valuable learning and when they believe they know what is expected and that they reasonably have the ability to do what is expected, they are more likely to invest the effort and submit authentic work for grading. With variation in disciplines for what makes an assessment appropriate and valid, not one piece of advice fits all. If you’d like to talk through some ideas for “cheat-proofing” assessments, please contact Susan Bens at

Picture courtesy of Luke Hayter and carries a CC-BY-NC license.


Gearing Up With Fall Fortnight 2016

Fall Fortnight Postcard - Front“Happy New Year!!” That is how I think of September and the new school year. This often coincides with a strong pull to stationary stores, tidying my office, organizing my supplies, reading new books, and pulling out sweaters and warm socks.

Gearing up for the Fall Term is exciting. There’s often anticipation, hope, renewed energy for trying new things and looking forward to tweaking things I tried last year. I think about taking a class. There are new “school” clothes, crisp mornings, and longer shadows when I head for home. All of that is bundled together as the new term starts. I think about the new faculty, staff, and students joining the community of University of Saskatchewan in the most beautiful city in Saskatoon. And meeting new people and renewing connections with colleagues after the summer is fun.

The Fall Fortnight 2016 tugs on all these feelings of fresh starts, new ideas, learning that leads to change, connecting and reconnecting into the campus community, and gearing up for the 2016-2017 teaching and learning adventure. With over twenty sessions on a wide variety of topics in a variety of formats you will no doubt find something that intrigues you or answers a question you might have. There are Just-for-YOU sessions for new faculty, grad students, and post-docs in addition to all the other sessions on offer. New this year are sessions on the ADKAR change model and strengths-based approaches to setting up groups for success. For more highlights and a description of the sessions types take a look at this short video:

And it’s easy to register too. Check out

If you don’t see what you are looking for, drop us a line and let us know what you would like to see on the schedule next time around. And you can also request a tailored session—we work with you to design a session on the topic of your choice specific to your unit’s needs.

Looking forward to seeing at you at the Fall Fortnight (or in the Bowl or at a stationary store).

Fortnight Postcard - Back

Historical Biases in Understanding Culture – A Barrier to Indigenization?

Western society has made significant advances in empirically derived truth and scientific inquiry (e.g., anthropology, psychology, linguistics, etc.) since the Age of Enlightenment (e.g., Descartes, Diderot, Montesquieu, Turgot, Vico, Voltaire, etc.). The impact and importance of this epistemological approach to the world and its mass adoption by Western societies can be perceived in many elements of European civilization and culture (Boon, 1972; Goodenough, 1961; Keesing, 1974; Triandis, 1994).

The rise of Europe’s epistemological renaissance occurred during the era of colonial expansion. At the time that Europe was pressing itself onto numerous societies around the world, dominating the global stage, many Western thinkers were using this colonial perspective as the backdrop for their formation of a scientific approach to culture. From their perspective, culture comprised of a society’s knowledge, values, beliefs, arts, technologies, morals, laws, customs, practices and habits (Boon, 1972; Goodenough, 1961; Hofstede, 1984, 2001; Keesing, 1974; Triandis, 1994). While this is a reasonable interpretation, it contained, unfortunately, the value of innovation and technological advancement (see Tylor, 1871; Harris, 1971; Stocking, 1966). This innovation approach to knowledge and culture is a European value rather than a core component of culture. The problem with this misattribution is that it is self-serving; it allows for the imposition of continuum-based view of a society’s culture based on their technological sophistication and advancement. For Europeans, this provided them with the appearance of an unbiased way of judging societies as more or less civilized (or savage). Furthermore, this social evolutionist perspective of culture (Harris, 1971; Long & Chakov, 2009) allowed colonial societies to believe, naively or not, that less civilized societies would eventually evolve toward the same position as Europe, especially if they were given the ‘right’ support and guidance (Boas, 1904).

Fortunately, more modern social scientific thought posits “that cultures be understood in their own right, not as a rung in a hierarchical ladder of evolution, […] but simply as a qualitatively varied entity” (citing Boas; Hogan & Sussner, 2001, p. 22). Despite this more equitable and relativistic approach to culture in social scientific disciplines, it is very difficult for the typical citizen to not use what they know and value as a filter for examining other cultures and ways of knowing. Without the appropriate training and critical reflection, anyone can be forgiven for not recognizing this misattribution bias. From this perspective, I sometimes wonder if remnants of Tylor’s 1871 perspective of culture still exist in our society? How pervasive is the use of one’s own values, beliefs and institutions in trying to understand, and judge, other cultures? Can we find ways to move past these types of biases to build a pluralistic cultured environment at the University of Saskatchewan?

As always, I would appreciate hearing from you about your thoughts, concerns, or suggestions on this blog post. Please contact me to talk (

If you would like information about the GMCTE including about the programs and supports we offer, please contact us at

Boas, F. (1904). The history of anthropology. Science, 20, 513-524.
Boon, J. A. (1972). From Symbolism to Structuralism: Levi-Strauss in Literary Tradition. New York, NY: Harper and Row.
Goodenough, W. H. (1961). Comment on cultural evolution. Daedalus, 90, 521-528.
Harris, M. (1971).  The rise of anthropological theory: A history of theories of culture. New York, NY: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, Inc.
Hofstede, G. (1984). Culture’s consequences: Differences in work-related values. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications Inc.
Hofstede, G. (2001). Culture’s consequences: Comparing values, behaviours, institutions and organizations across nations, 2nd Ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications Inc.
Hogan, J. D. & Sussner, B. D. (2001). Cross-cultural psychology in historical perspective. In L. L. Adler & U. P. Gielen (Eds.). Cross-cultural topics in psychology. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.
Keesing, R. M. (1974). Theories of culture. Annual Review of Anthropology, 3, 73-97.
Long, H., & Chakov, K. (2009). Social Evolutionism. Retrieved on April 30, 2010, from:
Stocking, G. W. (1966). Franz Boas and the culture concept in historical perspective. American Anthropologist, 68, 867-882.
Triandis HC. 1994. Culture and Social Behaviour. New York: McGraw-Hill
Tylor, E. B. (1871). Primitive Culture. New York, NY: Brentano’s.

‘Softwhere’ in the Curriculum

By Donna Beneteau, Departmental Assistant, Mining – Civil and Geological Engineering

In the era of rapidly developing technology, an efficient use of words in the title seemed appropriate. “Software, where in the curriculum?” didn’t provide the same effect. This question is now something that I ask myself after developing an assignment for the Gwenna Moss Centre’s course “Introduction to Learning Technologies”.

I prepared and gave a survey asking 2nd and 4th year Civil, Environmental and Geological Engineering students questions about software that they use in school, on summer jobs and on internships. In total, I received 214 responses, 110 from CE295 and 104 from CE495. As expected, the confidence level with Microsoft products increased as students learned tips from each other while doing regular group projects. However, the overall comfort level with AutoCAD (a drawing software commonly used in these disciplines and a course they take at Saskatchewan Polytechnic) actually declined between 2nd and 4th year, as some students forget what they learned.

AutoCAD and Microsoft products are only a few of the software types that students are exposed to in these fields of engineering. The combined list of software was over 30, with some being quite involved to learn. The value that specialized software brings is that it is written by experts in the field, and exists to automate repetitive or complicated procedures. Software can be difficult to learn and remember if you don’t use it, but it can also be a great bullet on one’s resume.

Looking forward, I think this survey highlights the need for strategies to integrate technology into certain programs. This should be done in consultation with students and industry. In doing so, this may help to see if tools are needed in programs, if better support could be given to students, or if perhaps we should standardize on one type (the Word-versus-WordPerfect-type debate). Also, this could avoid so many of the formatting errors we see over and over again on assignments. After all, one of the purposes of a post-secondary education is to get a job, and most jobs now are dependent on technology. So let’s not forget to formally think about software in curriculum development.

What is the science behind your course design madness?

By Fred Phillips, Professor, Baxter Scholar, Edwards School of Business

As we begin another year, students are encountering some of the course design decisions made by their instructors. Some will be introduced to “flipped classrooms”, where students prepare by reading/viewing/responding to a learning prompt before it is formally taken up in class. Others will encounter new learning tools, such as adaptive reading systems that embed interactive questions within reading materials with the goal of assessing each student’s comprehension so that new topics can be delivered the moment he or she is ready to comprehend them.

Just as instructors have questions about these approaches and tools, students are likely to be curious about whether there is a method to our course design madness. To help explain the underlying learning science, I have made a few videos that describe relevant (and fun) studies that lend support to these pedagogies. Each video focuses on a particular question that students (and possibly instructors) are likely to have about elements of their courses. Each video describes two or three relevant studies in just enough depth to convey the gist of how they were designed and what they discovered. And, in the spirit of a TED Talk, they are each less than 10 minutes in length.

My thought with these videos is that instructors can send each link to students at the moment they expect their students will be asking the particular question, or they can provide them en masse. My hope is that the videos will help students appreciate why our courses might be designed as they are. And, if we’re really lucky, the videos will inspire our campus community to learn more about the scholarship of teaching and learning. Enjoy!

1. Why do we have so many tests? (7 min 24 sec)

  • Students often wonder why I plan frequent quizzes and exams throughout the term.

2. Why attempt to answer questions before “being taught”? (7 min 22 sec)

  • Students often think that there isn’t benefit in attempting to answer questions before they are formally taught content.

3. Is easier and more convenient learning better? (8 min 54 sec)

  • Is it more effective for students to have a cramming study session or to study throughout the term? When practicing, should students group questions of similar type or mix different question types? Does use of analogies help or hinder student learning?