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Does your program use online discussions as little more than a mini-essay assignment solution, resulting in little actual discussion? Or does this sound familiar: students view online discussions as busywork and do the bare minimum to meet a “post by Tuesday, respond to two others by Thursday” cadence? Or do you have discussions fired up and working as an actual conversation that advances learning and engages students? 11trees believes online discussions, done well, can transform the way students interact with their peers and instructors, fostering a deeper understanding of course material through meaningful conversations. But how can busy instructors create vibrant online communities? What strategies are required to make them more impactful?

Why Use Discussion Forums?

Discussion forums offer an opportunity for students to engage in asynchronous communication, allowing them to reflect on their responses and engage with course material at a deeper level. Unlike traditional classroom settings, where students may feel pressured to respond immediately, forums provide a space for thoughtful consideration and research before replying. This can lead to richer, more informed discussions that enhance learning outcomes.

Online discussions are a better facsimile of the writing and communication skills students will use in the real world, where knowledge workers go back and forth all day on Microsoft Teams or Slack. As we’ve previously written, assigning a few medium to long-form essays across a term is a far cry from the reality of day-to-day writing in the modern workplace. We estimated that the average knowledge worker writes more in a day than a US undergraduate student does across an entire term. More than just the sheer number of words written, the style of online discussions is also a closer match to professional writing. Imagine getting through an entire workday without using “you” in any of your writing!

Finally, forums democratize the classroom experience. Every student, regardless of their comfort level speaking in front of groups, can share their thoughts and contribute to the conversation. This inclusive environment encourages diverse perspectives, enriching the learning experience for everyone.

Crafting Meaningful Conversations: Strategies and Models

To harness the full potential of discussion forums, educators must craft prompts and guidelines that promote genuine engagement. Here are some recommendations:

Introduce the 3CQ Model

A powerful framework for encouraging substantive discussion feedback is the 3CQ model, developed by Jenn Stewart-Mitchell. This model suggests that each response in a discussion should include:

  • Compliment: Acknowledge something positive about the previous person’s contribution.
  • Comment: Add a new insight or perspective to the discussion.
  • Connection: Relate the discussion to something outside of it, such as personal experience or external resources.
  • Question: Pose a question to drive the conversation forward.

This model ensures that responses are constructive and encourages continued dialogue rather than static answers. This is also a fantastic antidote to students using AI tools to do their writing for them. While, with the right prompting, any writing assignment could be done (to varying degrees of success) by AI, it is much more challenging to get the AI to engage in this way. Plus students are likely to be more motivated to write about their perceptions and experiences. AI tends to replace the work we find tedious, so making writing assignments engaging is much more effective at combating the use of AI than trying to catch students doing it.

Avoiding Parallel Monologues

One challenge in discussion forums is avoiding “parallel monologues,” where participants speak past each other without truly engaging. To counter this, prompts should encourage participants to directly respond to and build upon previous comments. This can be facilitated by requiring students to reference earlier posts in their responses or by structuring activities that necessitate collaboration. (See above with the 3CQ model.)

Icebreakers and Building Rapport

Starting with icebreaker questions or activities can help students feel more comfortable and willing to share. A simple, loosely structured warm-up writing activity that focuses solely on students’ perceptions helps create an environment of trust and respect that is crucial for open and honest discussions. Teachers can encourage students to share personal experiences related to the course content, which can build connections among classmates and make the material more relatable.

Crafting Effective Discussion Prompts

Effective discussion prompts are key to fostering engaging conversations. Here are some innovative ideas beyond the typical “answer/reply” format:

  • Role Play: Have students assume the perspective of a fictional or historical figure, fostering empathy and understanding.
  • Application: Ask students to apply concepts to practical scenarios or projects, requiring explanation and defense of their strategies.
  • Scenario: Pose real-life situations for students to address, perhaps linking to current events for relevance.

Discussion Moderator Edition

We’ve long been proponents of the value of discussions. That’s why we created a free-to-use and open-source Library for Annotate PRO called Discussion Moderator Edition (DME).

DME has 170+ comments focused on:

  • Encouragement
  • Discussion rules and expectations
  • Critical thinking
  • Use of evidence
  • Deepening the conversation
  • Socratic starters
  • Community standards
  • Content moderation
  • Basic writing mechanics

DME even includes sample discussion prompts you can use as catalysts for your own creativity.


Incorporating discussions into your LMS can dramatically enhance the learning experience, promote critical thinking, and foster a deeper understanding of course material. By carefully crafting discussion prompts and employing strategies like the 3CQ model, educators can create an environment where meaningful conversations flourish. By moving beyond word counts and deadline-driven minimum posting requirements, we can explore topics in-depth, encouraging students to listen, reflect, and engage with both the material and each other. Through thoughtful implementation, discussions can become a cornerstone of interactive and impactful learning, for students and instructors, in any course.