Are Discussion Forums in Online Classes Effective?


Are discussion forums in online classes effective or beneficial? As with any tool that could be deployed during a course, the answer is not as simple as “yes” or “no.” Just like any other tool, it depends on how it is used. Here is the good, the bad, and something to consider about discussion forums.

Can Online Discussion Forums be Effective or Beneficial?

Absolutely! As a staple to most online learning courses, the evidence suggests that such forums can draw the more reserved students out to participate when they might not have otherwise done so (Orlando, 2017). Above and beyond that, discussion forums offer an opportunity for critical thinking and reflection, time to explore and formulate responses, the examination of other ideas, the ability to practice professional communication and writing, and an abundance of reference materials that would not be presented in a face to face discussion (Cavanaugh, 2001).

Can Online Discussion Forums be Ineffective or Disadvantageous?

Absolutely! In fact, the reasons above and beyond technological ignorance or shyness are plenty. An instructor can make a mess of things if they are not careful. If students do not know the objectives of the discussion if expectations are unclear, or if a student’s posts go unanswered, student participation will be lacking, and any benefit that could have been received will either be hindered or missed (Macdonald, 2020). Also, without carefully formed questions and expectations, a few students will likely dominate the discussions (Orlando, 2017). Ask me how I know!

Furthermore, unrealistic due dates for posts will limit exploration and critical thinking, so instructors who rely on discussion forums must ensure that time is allotted for the actual goal (Morrison, 2012). Moreover, instructors must be aware that the posts of some students will lack depth. This often demonstrates a lack of critical thinking and reflection (Morrison, 2012). When identified, instructors should take the time to discover why this is happening or work with that student to course correct.

Is There a Better Tool or Approach?

Discussions are a critical component of any learning environment, so we should consider the word “better” a relative one. Accordingly, I’m not suggesting that such forums be done away with. However, some things can be done to maximize discussion forums. A few examples might be aligning the discussion forum with the learning goals rather than just assigning busywork, being detailed in the instructions and desired outcomes, and ensuring reciprocation and validation for posters (Macdonald, 2020). Another great idea comes from Charles Hodges, a professor of instructional technology at Georgia Southern University. His courses split discussions into two-week blocks where students post responses in the first week and evaluate and converse in the second (Lieberman, 2019).


When deploying an online discussion forum, it is essential to understand the purpose of the forum and the true nature of people. The good news is that, as the class progresses, students tend to participate more often (Orlando, 2017). However, instructors must be vision-oriented and remember that the point and purpose of such forums are the exploration of ideas, critical thinking and reflection, and creating a sense of community among students. This can be achieved with enough planning, enough time for students, and a keen eye.  

If you enjoyed this article, you might also like my article, “The Internet and Distance Education.”


Cavanaugh, T. (2001). Benefits of a discussion forum. Retrieved September 30, 2020, from

Lieberman, M. (2019, March 27). Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved September 30, 2020, from

Macdonald, S. (2020). Online Discussion Forums. Retrieved September 30, 2020, from

Morrison, D. (2012, November 10). 3 Reasons Students Don’t Participate in Online Discussions. Retrieved September 30, 2020, from Orlando, J. (2017, March 16). What Research Tells Us about Online Discussion. Retrieved September 30, 2020, from