A student guide to getting the most out of online discussion forums

5 min read


Time and time again, the students in my professional online master's courses told me that interacting with their peers on the discussion board was crucial for their learning. Of course, having well-designed tasks and an instructor who knows how to enliven discussion are important, but over the years I noticed how the attitudes and behavior of students could make or break their experience. Paying attention to how you approach peer interaction on the discussion board can make a huge difference to your learning. 

From one online instructor’s perspective, here are seven ways you can enhance your peer interaction on the discussion board.

1. Be a leader, early

One of my favorite TED Talks features Sugata Mitra’s Hole in the Wall experiment — the installation of a number of computers in India like ATMs for the purpose of providing children access to technology and education resources. The footage of Mitra’s experiment is quite incredible: One brave boy approaches the ‘strange’ machine and starts to use it. A small crowd soon follows suit until there is a gaggle of excited learners exploring a computer for the first time.

Be that brave boy. Go first on the discussion board and show others the way with quality content that is warm, friendly, and useful. Start conversations. Respond to anyone who responds to you. Consider what you might be able to give to a group of people who are taking this program, and give it. It’s often the early leaders in a discussion board who set the tone by creating an expectation for safe, fruitful discussion. You can be that leader.

Featured Program

Certificate in Healthcare Leadership

Discover Leadership for What’s Next and Lead Your Team and Your Organization Into the Future

Certificate in Healthcare Leadership

2. Be vulnerable

Posting on a discussion board among other professionals is naturally vulnerable. I get it: You take yourself and your job seriously. You need to be professional. You are also called upon to publicly expose your thoughts, which carries the risk that you might come across as foolish. I have noticed, though, that some adult learners mistake being professional for looking like you are really smart and have all the answers. It does not foster conversation if you start off posting and responding to others in a way that communicates expertise at such a level that there’s nothing anybody could say to enhance or question your thinking. Experts who have a growth mindset and are willing to admit to their peers how much they need to grow generate amazing conversations.

If you fear appearing foolish, understand that all your coursemates feel the same way! As the great Helen Fielding wrote, “No one is thinking about you. They are thinking about themselves. Just like you.”

If you have difficulty being vulnerable, have hope. Some of the most vulnerable conversations I’ve had in my life began with, “I have trouble being vulnerable.” (Also, reading or watching Brene Brown on TED Talks or Netflix is a must.)

3. Ask questions

Questions are interactive. They invite a response. If you ask someone to share their expertise, you are tapping into innate desires to be important and help others. You might also ask questions that require elaboration or express your interest in a peer’s experiences. These kinds of questions can benefit the whole group as any collection of adult learners possesses a vast array of experience, just waiting to be tapped into.

Questions are also a terrific way to generate debate, gently. For example, if I think that someone has misinterpreted an element of course material or expressed a narrow point of view, I might ask questions that start with, Do you think it is possible that …? Or How would your thinking change if you took the perspective of …?

For best results, always make your questions meaningful and authentic. A quick Google search for question stems will give you plenty of ideas.

4. Probe your peers’ thinking

Asking questions is one strong strategy I use to probe discussants’ thinking. But I also deliberately seek out ways to respond to posts with stories of my own or others’ lives. Stories expand perspective. When I do this, I’m never overtly challenging someone’s thinking, I’m adding to it.

I have noticed that when students probe each other, they open up new worlds for their peers, and hence play a role in their growth. This is a heartwarming experience for all involved, and when peers are supported in this way they are grateful and tend to reciprocate.

5. Share resources

Busy professionals engaged in the kind of online learning that emphasizes practical skills, like the programs offered through OpusVi, always appreciate applicable resources. If you know about or come across an article, a website, a book, TED Talk, or infographic that you find interesting, chances are that your classmates will, too! Excellent discussants in online programs share readily and by doing so encourage others to do likewise. I’ve had classes request that I gather together such collections of shared resources so that they have a record of them all in one place for future use.

Discover Our Blog Full of Learning Resources and Insights That You (and Others) Might Find Interesting

Before you read on...

Read More


6. Be fun

While learning in a professional environment must remain professional to be truly effective, there’s still room for fun. Sharing comedy, memes, music, and cartoons as a means to illustrate a point or encourage your peers is a welcome addition to any discussion board. I had one student who made avatars to communicate her various moods and personas when she posted. Using fun elements will ensure your posts get attention, and it serves your peers too. Fun lightens the mood, just like it does in face to face contexts.

In a learning setting, using fun also serves another purpose: It helps with creativity. Anything that provides a hit of positivity or an elevation in mood, including the kind of fun described here, heightens creativity as well as well-being.

7. Last but not least, be you!

Not all students are adept at probing thinking, asking good questions, or being funny. A strategy unsuited to your personality will not work well. That said, it’s also a good idea to stretch yourself and try out something new. You just might have an undiscovered talent.

Find your kindred spirits

There are many ways for students to forge intellectual and emotional bonds on discussion boards. I’ve noticed that like-minded learners find each other on the board and stick together throughout a program. Expressing yourself is the best way I know to uncover the like-minded. While discussing learning content, you’re forming real relationships with peers interested in exactly the same topics you are.

Judy Wearing, PhD


Judy Wearing, PhD

Lead Learning Architect at OpusVi™


Judy Wearing, PhD

Lead Learning Architect at OpusVi™

Judy has worked as an educator and curriculum developer for over twenty years, designing programs, courses, and learning activities for a broad range of learners both online and in person. She holds two PhDs, one in biology from the University of Oxford and the other in education from Queen’s University. She specializes in supporting teachers and learners in the competencies particularly creativity, critical thinking, and communication. She is the author of more than twenty books for adults and children.