Online Discussions: Tips for Students

Online discussions can help you prepare for class, learn discussion skills, practice your writing skills, and learn from others. To be successful, you need to translate your face-to-face discussion skills to the online environment. Remember that online discussions are first and foremost dialogues, not writing assignments. The following tips highlight key features of effective online discussion strategies, whether for discussion groups. These are general strategies. Be sure to read and follow your course-specific discussion assignment instructions. 

Writing a post

Review the discussion instructions. 

Your discussion may be more open-ended or there may be specific discussion prompts. In the case when there are specific discussion prompts, read them carefully and respond to all aspects of the prompt. Also, note whether your instructor wants you to include references and, if so, how many.

For more open- ended discussions, complete any of the assigned readings prior to drafting your post. You may be asked to think of a thesis and how to support it. Then read the other postings and see how they support or contradict your idea and write about this. Another strategy is to look for postings that lack evidence and probe for some. You can also turn your thoughts into questions or share alternate viewpoints. Remember, though, that opinions aren’t arguments. Be sure to support what you say with references to course materials or outside sources, such as readings.

Use keywords in your title. 

Online discussions can generate many messages, so you need to consider efficient ways to make your contributions. To help the other participants quickly understand what your post is about, be sure that your title clearly indicates the content that will follow. “My ideas about today’s readings” isn’t nearly as clear as “My opinion on Freud’s theory of mourning and melancholia.” Your title could even summarize the opinion, argument, or question that you raise, like in the following: “Freud’s theory of mourning and melancholia: A false divide.”

Encourage discussion.

If you’re the first to post, strive to encourage discussion. Get others thinking (and writing) by making bold statements or including open-ended questions in your message. Those who post first are most often responded to and cited by others. Remember to check back and see if and how others have responded to your ideas.

Make posts short, clear, and purposeful. 

Review the discussion guidelines for how long your posts should be. If length is not specified, write one to two meaningful paragraphs because long messages are difficult to read online. Another consideration is to make only one main point in each post, supported by evidence and/or an example. Be concise (Vonderwell, 2003). 

Your stance need not be forever. 

It can be intimidating to take a stand on an issue at times, especially when you put it in writing, which we associate with permanence. Remember that you are allowed to change your mind! Simply indicate that with the new information raised in the discussion, you have changed your stance. Learning is about change.

Other practical considerations for discussion board postings 

It can be frustrating to read through a busy discussion forum with lots of posts and replies. Make sure to create new threads if new topics evolve in the discussion. Subscribing to receive email alerts of new postings can help participants keep up with a conversation without checking back into the discussion forum repeatedly. You can configure the tool to receive alerts whenever a new post appears, or receive a daily summary of the posts. 

Responding to other posts

Make the context clear. 

An informative title will help, but also consider including in your reply a quotation from the original message that you’re responding to. If the original message is lengthy, cut out what is not relevant to your response. If the original has many paragraphs, you could place your comments in bold between the paragraphs to give readers the context for your ideas (Vonderwell, 2003).

Add value to the conversation.

Saying “I agree” does not move the discussion forward. Ask yourself why you agree and explain your rationale so that others have something else to respond to (Vonderwell, 2003).

Ask probing questions. 

Consider using the following questions when trying to extend a discussion:

  • What reasons do you have for saying that?
  • Why do you agree (or disagree) on that point?
  • How are you defining the term that you just used?
  • What do you mean by that expression?
  • Could you clarify that remark?
  • What follows from what you just said?
  • What alternatives are there to such a formulation? (Roper, 2007)

Feel free to disagree with your classmates. 

To air different perspectives or help others clarify their thinking, you may need to contradict a classmate. Remember to disagree respectfully (no name-calling or obscenities) and support your point with evidence. Do not feel bad about offering a different interpretation. Your contribution should help to make the discussion more productive for all involved.

Work to create group cohesion. 

Discussions are about group learning. When you function well as a group, you will be more open to all the benefits that this type of learning can offer. Give positive feedback to one another, use light humour, avoid comments that could be taken as insulting, use first names, respond promptly to each other, and offer assistance. Also remember the lack of nonverbal and vocal cues in the online environment. You’ll need to label emotions (e.g., “I’m confused about this” or “I feel strongly”) because no one will pick up on how you feel otherwise.

Be aware when postings prompt strong emotional responses.

If you feel very emotional about a message, wait before responding. It’s very easy to write something in the heat of the moment and then wish you could retract it. If you send it to the discussion, the damage is done. Even waiting overnight can give you enough distance to respond in a calmer and more professional manner.

Developing a positive perspective

Engage in online chats.

Online chats can provide an opportunity to ask questions or make comments during an online lecture. Try to make your comments concise and clear. Remember to be respectful and professional: don't write anything that you wouldn't speak in class. Also, avoid clogging up the chat with links to extraneous resources. Stay focused and aim to add value to the class experience. 

Be open to new ideas 

Discussion is about hearing what others have to say and working to shape and re-shape your own thoughts and perspectives. Different perspectives can further everyone’s understanding of the issue or concept being discussed—they represent opportunities for learning.

The online environment comes with many benefits, including learning from your peers in addition to your instructor. Use the time productively to hone lifelong skills and refine your ideas about the course content.


If you would like support applying these tips to your own teaching, CTE staff members are here to help.  View the CTE Support page to find the most relevant staff member to contact.


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teaching tipsThis Creative Commons license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon our work non-commercially, as long as they credit us and indicate if changes were made. Use this citation format: Online Discussions: Tips for Students. Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo.