Student engagement and communication through discussion forums


Dr Mark Coles in the Department of Biology set up discussion forums in the Immunology and Infectious Diseases module for Year 2 undergraduates to enable them to ask questions and follow up on lecture content to consolidate learning.

Keywords: Discussion, collaboration, communication

Aims and Objectives

The module leader wanted to use discussion forums to open up new communication channels with students and provide them with opportunities to follow up on lecture content. Discussion forums were preferred for the “democratic” approach to communication:

  • Addressed student anxieties about asking questions in face to face sessions and provided an alternative forum for students to check their understanding.
  • Discussion forums were open to the entire cohort, allowing all students to benefit from answers given to an individual.
  • Students had the opportunity to respond to each others’ questions.


A discussion forum was set up in the VLE which was highlighted to students as the preferred method of student/staff communication for the module. The tool was emphasised at the opening induction lecture where the lecturer demonstrated functionality and created an “icebreaker” post. Student expectations were also managed from the outset, letting them know how quickly they could expect a response (usually within 48 hours).

The module leader checked the discussion forum at regular intervals and responded to queries within the given timescale. Discussion forum activity replaced a large percentage of e-mail management for this module.


The module used the discussion forum provided within the VLE. It was set up to allow students to choose to post anonymously to encourage use and for students to ask simple questions that led to more in-depth interactions through the forums.


The forums were well used throughout the module with an average of three posts a week with student appreciating the access that they felt they had to staff and the timely responses they received.

Staff also reported a number of positive outcomes arising:

  • Impact on overall workload; it was easier to respond to queries through a discussion forum at set times than manage a constant flow of individual email and office enquiries and responding in an open forum helped to avoid numerous queries about the same topic.
  • “Real time” feedback about student understanding allowed staff to recap or focus on areas raised through the forums in subsequent teaching.

Transferable lessons learned

There are a number of transferable approaches that helped to make the use of discussion forums successful:

  • Integrate forums throughout the module and highlight as the preferred route of communication for staff (with the quickest response times).
  • Introduce forums at an initial induction session and demonstrate their use with an “ice breaker” question. This helped to kick start use and was sufficient technical support for students who were then able to use forums.
  • Provide timely responses to questions posted by students and manage student expectations of when they will receive an answer.
  • Create a supportive environment where students won’t be made to feel “silly” for asking questions and clarifying points raised in lectures. Allowing students to post anonymously gave many the confidence to post initially.

Next Steps

Case study last updated: April 2011

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