Four Types of Discussion Forums in Online Courses

The below piece was originally published on Judith Boettcher’s Thoughts on Teaching blog.

By Judith Boettcher

Judith Boettcher

A key component of any online course is the discussion board. As online courses have matured, we realize that not all discussion forums are or should be the same. Some discussions are for building community; other discussions are for exploring new ideas; others are for applying core concepts; and others are for gathering evidence of understanding. If the purposes of discussion boards differ, then how we structure, monitor, and evaluate the discussion boards should also differ.

Many purposes for asynchronous discussions have been identified (Painter, Coffin, & Hewings, 2003; Grogan, 2005), but in the interest of simplicity, this post focuses on four types. It is worth noting that these discussion types build in consistent, regular, and substantive dialogue and interaction between faculty and students and between students. Regular and substantive dialogue is one of the requirements for quality courses recognized and even required by federal guidelines (Toppo, 2018).

The below table, Four Primary Discussion Types for Online Courses, summarizes the purpose, design, monitoring, evaluation recommendations, and faculty involvement for each type.

Here is a brief description of the four types. The first discussion type focuses on Introductions and community-building among the students. The other three types focus on the content and tasks often associated with student activities for each course module: the Initial engagement with the content followed by Investigation and exploration of the content and wrapping up the module with Integration and summary of the content.

• Type One: Introductions and Community-Building. Online students often feel isolated from anyone who can share their immediate learning experiences. This is the reason one of the best practices for online courses recommends that a discussion forum focused on introductions is one of the first activities of any course to support the emotional component of learning (Boettcher & Conrad, 2016). This introductory discussion forum lays the foundation for student-to-student conversation, interaction, and support, creating a comfortable and trusting social presence (Garrison, Anderson & Arche, 2000). In addition to the introductory forum, a related best practice is a discussion forum as a dedicated informal student space for students to talk to each other about anything related to the course or not. This is sometimes called the Cybercafe. Other community-building discussion forums might be dedicated to talking and sharing ideas about projects. Another community-focused forum might be dedicated to mutual support about problem-solving, case studies, or just thinking aloud. This introductory and community-building discussion board is usually not formally evaluated, but guidelines state how students earn points by being present and supporting the course community.

• Type Two: Initial Content Engagement. This type of discussion forum invites students to think about what they already might know about a new idea, concept, problem, or closely related concept. The purpose of this discussion activity is twofold—for students to become aware of what they already know and encourage their curiosity about the new knowledge to come, and for instructors to develop insight into students’ existing understanding. This discussion activity is similar to a “think-pair-share” classroom activity in which students share what they think and where, when, or how they might have heard about a concept, person, idea, or related event. Evaluation of these initial discussions is generally informal, according to a rubric emphasizing participation and contributions and occasionally focusing on insights and relationships. This discussion activity often launches a new topic, module, or project before embarking on readings and other content engagement activities.

• Type Three: Investigation and Research. The purpose of this discussion type is to seriously engage students with the content. This discussion type can be the heart of the content knowledge activities, relying on activities that direct students to read, analyze, and research content material. New content knowledge builds on the student’s understandings and expands the knowledge base needed to apply and use the knowledge. Some of the discussion activities might be sharing insights from readings and suggesting applications of the content in different contexts. Other activities might be brief action studies, brief summaries of content relationships, student-to-student discussions, or simulations. Often students will start working with the ideas, researching possibilities and relationships, and connecting the dots. Evaluation of this discussion type is based on the expected level of engagement and how deep or broad their contributions might be expected. The rubric for this type of discussion will have more point values and varying requirements and expectations as to students using the core concepts, sharing ideas, and responding to the substantive ideas of other students.

• Type 4: Integration and Documentation. This discussion type has a primary purpose of gathering evidence for student understanding or grading. It includes activities that require students to use their new content knowledge to solve problems, investigate related questions, and make predictions. This type of discussion is a reflective, integrative, and action-oriented activity, often including solving problems, case analysis, and applying and integrating the new concepts with other concepts and relationships. The posting/essay in this discussion requires substantial thinking and research, including citing important relevant readings, researching, and problem-solving. This type of discussion will have the most point values, and depending on instructional goals, more or less involvement with other students. It will require more detailed feedback from the instructor.

This table summarizes the purpose, design, monitoring, evaluation recommendations, and faculty involvement for four types of discussions.

The development of good practices guiding the design and facilitation of discussion forums in online courses are still evolving. However, it is worth remembering that the guidelines and good practices for face-to-face discussions in classrooms and other civil gatherings also have a long way to go. Hopefully this analysis of types and purposes of discussion forums will aid in effective design and facilitation of online discussions.

What to read next: “3 Ways to Enhance Your Online Instruction” by Judith Boettcher



Note 1: Many thanks to Marlo G. Hode, Ph.D, Academic Director at ACUE, for suggesting this blog focusing on types of discussions, for generating the initial table, and for review and comments of drafts.


Note 2: Read more about other questions on discussions in the Course Beginning Tips (CB 10 – CB 17) in The online teaching survival guide: Simple and practical pedagogical tips (2 ed.) by Boettcher, J. V., & Conrad, R. M. Some of these discussions are also in the Teaching Tips library at

How many discussions should I have each week of the course?

How should I use the discussion forum?

Which discussions will I grade and with how much formality?

Should I create different rubrics for the different types of discussion postings?

How involved should I, as the instructor, be in the student conversations?



Association of College and University Educators. (2019). ACUE’s Effective Practice Framework. Module 3b: Using Active Learning Techniques in Large Classes. Retrieved from


Boettcher, J. V., & Conrad, R.-M. (2016). The online teaching survival guide: Simple and practical pedagogical tips (2 ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


Center for Teaching Excellence University of Waterloo. (n.d.). Facilitating Effective Discussions. Retrieved from


Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2‐3), 1-19. Retrieved from


Grogan, G. (2005). The Design of Online Discussions to Achieve Good Learning Results. Retrieved from


Painter, C., Coffin, C., & Hewings, A. (2003). Impacts of directed tutorial activities in computer conferencing: A case study. Distance Education, 24(2), 159-173.


Rovai, A. P. (2007). Facilitating online discussions effectively. The internet and higher education, 10(1), 77-88, 77-99.


Toppo, G. (2018). New debate on ‘regular and substantive’ interaction between instructors and students. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from

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