Active Learning and the use of discussion forums as summative assessment for online teaching

Dr Marta Vianya-Estopa

What is the idea?

The COVID-19 pandemic forced academics involved in clinical courses to quickly re-evaluate the content of face-to-face sessions. Due to the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, materials that can be learnt independently by learners should be explored outside of face-to-face sessions. This shift in learning has resulted in many benefits that would continue to be used for online teaching. I will explore how properly designed online discussion forums can offer advantages and can be used to contribute to summative components of clinical modules. For example, students self-learning and researching specific questions can help others in the same class. I will also highlight what needs to be considered when setting up and managing discussion forums online.

Why this idea?

This idea focuses on the use of online discussion forums to increase active learning in an optics base module. Clinical skills can be embedded in a variety of ways, depending on whether learning can occur independently by students or in collaboration with others. Bloxham and Boyd (2007) suggested that assessment activity in higher education is the main learning activity. In other words, students engage with materials when faced with assessment tasks. Those involved in the design, delivery and assessment of clinical courses might need to consider the value that non-traditional assessment tasks such as remote online discussion forums offer to their courses. Asynchronous online discussion forums promote reflection of learning and connect students (Benbunan-Fich & Hiltz, 1999) making them ideal to scaffold learning of clinical skills. In addition, they can also offer the following benefits:

  • Promotes the development of written communication skills.
  • Gives choice as part of the summative assignment. This in turn might improve students’ learning and promote fair assessment of a diverse student population (Bloxham & Boyd, 2007)
  • Allows the use of visual resources (videos, websites) for topics that students may find particularly uninteresting.
  • Establishes a sense of community.
  • Offers a variety of assessments to modules within a course.
  • Helps monitor continuous engagement with the module (as contributions are time-limited).
  • Helps address any misconceptions in a timely manner rather than at the end of a module (as opposed to students submitting a traditional assignment with no opportunity for formative feedback).

Despite these benefits, some may find online discussion forums difficult to run but recent research shows strategies to help mitigate these difficulties (Lima et al, 2019).

How could others implement this idea?

This idea could be used in a range of contexts (not just clinical courses) as it allows flexibility and variety depending on the module requirements. For example, it can help assess students’ prior knowledge before covering a topic in class or help create a repository of exam questions for revision purposes (if students are asked to create and discuss MCQ questions on specific topics). In addition, discussion forums help to keep students at the centre of their learning and create a sense of community offering an opportunity to engage with other students in the cohort. Most learning management systems will accommodate the use of online threads (e.g. Canvas, Blackboard, Moodle). Please see an example of a discussion thread showing how students are encouraged to engage with the topic (Figure 1). Students’ feedback shows that they have fun engaging with others in this way.


Screenshot - Example of a Discussion thread on Canvas
Figure 1. Example of a Discussion thread on Canvas


To implement this idea in your own context, follow the following steps:

  1. Decide which aspects of your course will benefit from independent research by the students and select those that work best in the context of a discussion forum.
  2. Plan a variety of questions for each discussion thread. For example, you can start with a scenario, followed by some questions suggesting students to contribute in a variety of ways (e.g. explore relevant literature, websites, videos).
  3. Decide the frequency of discussion forums in your module (e.g. compulsory participation in discussion threads every fortnight). For asynchronous discussion forums you will also need to consider how long each discussion thread will be open for contributions and expectations from students (i.e. how many student contributions are required in terms of new posts and/or responses to previous posts).
  4. Review whether the discussion forum aligns well with learning outcomes and other sessions in the module (i.e. does it align with content provided in previous lectures).
  5. Set clear rules regarding participation (e.g. contributions need to be unique) and online netiquette (including respect to others and forgiving other’s mistakes).
  6. Decide who will monitor the discussion (and how often). For small class sizes, you may need to set time aside weekly to respond to contributions and for large cohorts you may need to assign this role to students.
  7. Decide and share your marking scheme and weighting of contributions. An advantage of discussion forums is that it allows to mark contributions during the trimester. In addition, it will also help you identify students not engaging with your course early on.
  8. Include a ‘test’ discussion thread – to allow students to familiarise themselves with the technology (e.g. uploading an image/video) and requirements.

Links to tools and resources

You can find several online resources offering tips on how best to use discussion boards. Consider reviewing the following before you start:


Bloxham, S., & Boyd, P. (2007). Developing effective assessment in higher education: A practical guide. Open University Press.

Benbunan-Fich R., Hiltz S. R. (1999). Impacts of asynchronous learning networks on individual and group problem solving: A field experiment. Group Decision and Negotiation, 8(5), 409–26.

Lima D. P. R., Gerosa M. A., Conte T. U., & Netto J. F. M. (2019). What to expect, and how to improve online discussion forums: The instructors’ perspective. Journal of Internet Services and Applications, 10, 22.

Image Attributions

Eye Test by Marta Vianya-Estopa  is used under CC-BY 4.0 license.

Figure 1. Screenshot – Example of a Discussion thread on Canvas by Marta Vianya-Estopa is used under CC-BY 4.0 Licence

About the author

Dr Marta Vianya-Estopa teaches in various modules within Optometry and Ophthalmic Dispensing courses. Although her main research is in the area of contact lenses, she also has a strong interest in how best to integrate active learning when teaching optics related courses.


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100 Ideas for Active Learning Copyright © 2022 by Dr Marta Vianya-Estopa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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