Learning Through Online Discussion Forums

The use of online discussion forums as a collaborative learning tool has been widely and successfully used in eLearning for a number of years. It is generally accepted that the educational potential of online discussions is tremendous. Through active involvement in these discussions students report the benefit of an increase in their learning. A number of advantages can be derived from online discussions, including enhanced critical thinking, knowledge construction and improved social skills. If the students can see sufficient reward for their participation, such as marks towards assessment or increased knowledge, they are likely to be more active. It can however be difficult to assess the level of student learning from online discussions.

This blog will explore a number of techniques used to assess knowledge construction and learning within discussions. It will look at the different roles the facilitator can play, how peer facilitation can be used to help students and outline how the assignment of roles can be used to structure discussions and increase students learning.

Measurements of Learning

It can be challenging to assess how a learning activity has been perceived by students and how effective in delivering learning the activity has been. There are several ways to measure knowledge construction within an online discussion. The number of contributions a student posts can be positively reflected in the students learning outcomes. Students who frequently participate are considered to be more actively engaged in the learning experience and this has been linked to significantly higher levels of attainment. Through increased exposure to the learning material, and active learning the achievement of learning outcomes can be greatly increased.

Measuring the number of levels within a discussion can also give an indication of students knowledge construction. Deeper discussion threads reflect a much higher level of engagement. This can help the active participants develop a deeper understanding of the learning content.

A more subjective approach to assessing the level of learning is to evaluate the individual responses posted by students. The discussions can be analysed for a number of different indicators and the level of knowledge construction observed during the discussions can be correlated to the students grades.


The role of a facilitator in an asynchronous online discussion is “to support and inspire the communication processes for knowledge construction” (Kienle & Ritterskamp, 2007). This is very important. Facilitators can help guide students, identify areas where participants are either strong or weak and guide the discussion in the right direction. They can also assist in directing the students to further resources where necessary. By encouraging participation the facilitator can encourage lurkers to participate, allowing the group as a whole to benefit from the additional contributions. Having a facilitation role in online discussions often results in increased participation from students. When the facilitator uses instructive wording and sets deadlines for tasks, student activity levels typically increase. Increased activity has been shown to have a positive effect on student grades. Another important role for the facilitator is to weave the student’s inputs together, providing valuable summaries of key learning topics. This ensures the all important points are reiterated and reinforced.

Through summarising discussions the facilitator provides ‘intentional repetition’, this allows a “more coherent understanding” (Abdullah, 2008). Both the level of participation and an analysis of student discussion posts can be evaluated to assess student performance. There are a number of benefits in having a facilitator. These include an increased level of discussion activity, along with a better understanding of the learning materials in discussions. It is likely then, that if a facilitator can improve student interaction and learning, the students themselves should be able to assist each other through peer facilitation. This concept of is a very valuable use of student resources.

Peer Facilitation

Students who have been appropriately trained in the facilitation process can provide a role of leadership and mentoring. The roles of student facilitators are described in a study (Qiyun, 2008) where students were given basic facilitation training. They were shown how experienced facilitators moderate discussions followed by some time to practice. They were then required to moderate one discussion and participate in two others which were moderated by their peers. The students agreed that participation and interaction were critical for the success of online discussions. With a better understanding of how knowledge construction takes place in discussions students are more open to participation.

Role Assignment

A peer facilitated asynchronous discussion should create an environment where high levels of both learner interaction and knowledge construction is taking place. Another technique identified as being beneficial to helping a group peer facilitate is role assignment. Through structuring the learning experience, and assigning each student an individual role, students are enabled to perform in line with the role they have been allocated. Example roles consist of moderator, theoretician, source searcher and summariser. Each of these roles needs to be clearly defined, and cover a particular task, normally carried out by the teacher. Each role should support a different aspect of facilitation. Role assignment is an effective technique for assisting with peer facilitation.


The use of asynchronous online discussion forums has been widely acknowledged as having the ability to provide an excellent learning resource. While some debate has been generated about the knowledge construction and learning outcomes from such activities, there are a number of measurements which can be employed to assess the levels of learning taking place. Those students who actively read, but to a much greater extent those who post, benefit compared to those students who fail to engage in the discussion. Greater levels of depth in discussions, and the higher levels of knowledge construction also correlate with better student attainment.

Having looked at a number of ways to assess learning in discussions it is clear the role of a facilitator can help students. Facilitators can encourage the entire group to participate, they can help structure discussions and provide instruction and guidance where and when appropriate. Deadlines can help focus the students, while summarising reinforces the learning material and enhances student understanding.

While there can be difficulties with peer facilitation, there are reasonable benefits. Students can be successful in carrying out the tasks of facilitation. Role assignment can also be used as a method to help peers facilitate each other. By assigning clear and individual roles to students, increased knowledge construction can take place.

Facilitators and peer facilitators can help students develop and benefit from using asynchronous online discussions, particularly when assigned discreet facilitation roles.


  • Abdullah, T. (2008). ‘Intentional repetition’ and learning style: Increasing efficient and cohesive interaction in asynchronous online discussions. British Journal of Educational Technology, 39(5), 901-919.
  • Kienle, A., & Ritterskamp, C. (2007). Facilitating asynchronous discussions in learning communities: the impact of moderation strategies. Behaviour & Information Technology, 26(1), 73 – 80.
  • Qiyun, W. (2008). Student-facilitators’ roles in moderating online discussions. British Journal of Educational Technology, 39(5), 859-874.