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Moderating Discussion Forums

Discussion is a powerful tool for online learning. It can help foster a sense of community, encourage peer-to-peer interaction, and improve learner engagement.

Discussion can take the form of debate or reflective sharing, giving learners the opportunity to expand upon and clarify their understanding of key ideas. It moves beyond more passive learning forms of reading, listening, and watching and allows the learner to actively engage with their peers and tutor.

Why use discussion in online learning?

woman smiling using laptop in a cafe
© Brooke Cagle (2017) Unsplash, CC0

Online teaching by its nature involves learners and tutors interacting at a spatial, and often temporal, distance. Without the benefits of being in the same physical space at the same time, online learning might feel a poor alternative to in-person teaching. At any one time, psychological, communicational, emotional, political and social distances may be present in addition to spatial and temporal1.

Transactional distance (Moore 1997) can be used to describe the psychological and communicational distance that may arise in any instructional context and include the above types of distance2. Despite its presence, transactional distance does not mean online learning cannot be a rich, engaging, and meaningful learning experience. It means that careful consideration must be given to the design of online learning.

When used with other learning types, discussion forums can help mitigate transactional distance. When interacting with learners in discussion forums, tutors can imbue their course with teacher presence. This helps to reassure learners that someone is present and gives value to the forums. Discussions also lessen the transactional distance between learner and tutor.

How to create teacher presence

When interacting in the discussion forums, you can utilise many different methods to create teacher presence:

  • Introductory messages that set up expectations for the course.
  • Individual responses to learner comments and/or posts (depending on cohort size).
  • General feedback based on common themes and ideas presented in learner responses (ideal for larger cohorts)
  • Audio, video or text responses that address common questions presented by cohort.

Top 10 tips for managing discussions

It is important to have a plan and set expectations for learners from the start. You don’t have to be available every hour of every day, but it is important to let learners know how often you will be engaging with discussion forums. This will also help you to manage moderation alongside other responsibilities. Be clear about what discussion board etiquette looks like. 

Consider the following top tips:

  1. Be concise.
  2. Advance the conversation.
  3. Respond with points raised in learners' posts.
  4. Reference course concepts in your posts.
  5. Be considerate, respectful, and encouraging.
  6. Use appropriate language.
  7. Consider the aim of each discussion forum.
  8. Summarise a series of posts rather than responding to every individual one.
  9. Let the conversation develop its own momentum before jumping in to respond.
  10. Try to refer to people by name when summarising. It goes a long way to acknowledging their contribution.

If you would like to know more, you can book a place on our Moderating Discussion Forums training, which is a one-hour session that demonstrates how to moderate discussion forums to retain student engagement and encourage student interactions throughout the semester. Useful for anyone who is teaching online, in any discipline, and at any level.


1. Moore, M. (2013). The theory of transactional distance. M.G. Moore (Ed.), Handbook of distance education (3rd ed.), Routledge, New York, pp. 66-85.

2. ‘The Edinburgh Model for Online Teaching’ on Learn.