task listStudents who are unfamiliar with an online learning environment may not understand the importance of discussion forums, or they may find it difficult to participate. Some students may simply be confused and not know what to do or how to post. Some may not know appropriate online behaviors or be familiar with netiquette guidelines. And just like in a face-to-face classroom, some students might be hesitant to contribute due to shyness.

So what can you do to familiarize students with discussion forums, encourage class interaction, and build a supportive community among your online students? You can establish some guidelines that will help your students navigate this very important part of your course. Consider, for example, providing a PDF document, a syllabus section, or a discussion forum thread that lists some of the following ground rules.

Introduce yourself

The welcome activity will help you get to know your classmates and help create a positive educational environment. Use the off-topic forums to talk with other students.

Ask questions

If you find something confusing or want to know more, do not hesitate to ask questions. Make sure to post your questions in the appropriate thread.

Participate

Do not hide in the background; it is not fair to lurk and let others do all the work. Contribute to discussions to get as much as possible from the course and to maintain your participation grade.

Do not dominate a discussion

Share your knowledge, but not to the point of excluding others. If you have something to offer, please share it, but allow everyone to contribute equally to a discussion.

Be intellectually rigorous

Do not excuse sloppy or illogical thinking. Challenge yourself and one another.

Be tactful

Be critical of ideas, but remember there are other people involved. Be tactful and kind. You can hurt the feelings of a person reading your post.

Forgive other students’ mistakes

Do not correct others, even if you follow the rules of netiquette and use good manners. Just because you do not agree with a student’s post does not mean that he or she is wrong. Instead, offer a different perspective to encourage further discussion.

Read the whole thread before posting

Read all the posts in a thread before responding so you don’t repeat what others have already said. Try to contribute clarifying information or a new idea to a discussion.

Be concise

Do not waste people’s time by posting basic, repetitive information. Make your point clearly and quickly.

Reread and check your posts

Practice professionalism. Be mindful of how you look online; others will likely judge the tone and quality of your writing. Reread your posts and edit for clarity and mechanics.

Cite your sources

If you use a source, cite it properly. Give credit where credit is due. Include links where appropriate.

Maintain confidentiality

Respect your classmates’ privacy. Do not repeat the personal information that others share.

Report technical problems

If the platform is not working properly, please let me know as soon as possible.

Utilize a netiquette policy

Utilize the institution’s established guidelines for network etiquette in order to address respect between students and instructors.

Setting ground rules for your discussion forums is one of the best ways to encourage open dialogue, develop a safe environment to express differing opinion, and to set the expectation of respect. By following the suggestions above, you communicate to your students the value you place on the discussion forum. For further guidance on developing ground rules for discussion forum interaction, refer to Virginia Shea’s influential book, Netiquette (1994).