Online discussions: How to incorporate them in training
Instructional Design

Online discussions: How to incorporate them in training


If you’ve ever received a medical diagnosis, especially a serious one, (or know someone who has), you’ll know what it’s like to be bombarded with information. And instructions. Do this. Go here. Make time. Take these. Give up those. And read about that.

All good advice, and obviously important when dealing with the practicalities of the diagnosis. But this one-way flow of information can be overwhelming. Hard to take in, and not so helpful when it comes to helping patients understand and cope with how they feel.

Aware of this, medical practitioners and health educators looked for more effective ways of helping their patients seek and share technical information, while also exploring the emotional aspects of the experience. And they found… online discussion boards.

Prompted by the growth in social media, but grounded in academic research, online discussion forums now play a significant role in helping patients understand and absorb information about their treatment and testing. And helping them find practical ways of dealing with their long-term prognosis.

Pretty powerful stuff, right? And, not limited to the medical world. Discussion boards and learning forums have, for similar reasons, been given an elevated role in the world of eLearning. And it’s that world, we’re focusing on here. Let’s dive in.

Why use online discussions in training

So, why are discussion boards so effective when it comes to eLearning? Well, the simple answer is that they’re one of the best examples of social learning in action. Developed in the 1950s by psychologist Albert Bandura, social learning is the theory that people learn better when they learn together.

And, backed by a host of cognitive scientists, it’s now considered one of the most effective learning and teaching strategies around.

But what do we mean by “learn better”? Here are the main benefits of using discussion boards in online learning:

  • Higher knowledge retention: As the popular saying goes, “show me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” Discussions turn learners from passive recipients to active participants—and this way, they’re more likely to absorb new knowledge.
  • More engaged and effective managers: Empowering managers to comment and discuss in online forums strengthens the team bond. Managers feel more connected, which means they lead their teams better.
  • Faster learning: When people learn together, they cover more ground and they cover it faster.
  • Elimination of knowledge gaps: If an employee doesn’t know something, they can quickly use a discussion forum to reach out to another employee who does. And then pass that knowledge on.
  • Stronger bonds and better engagement: Encouraging learners to communicate outside a formal eLearning environment creates powerful emotional connections that improve learner engagement.
  • Reinforced learning: Debate, reflection, and the sharing of ideas and questions support comprehension, clarify understanding, and develop critical thinking.
  • A better ROI: Training channels (for example, discussion boards) that create connections and support the sharing of information lead to better pass and course completion rates.
  • Increased ownership: Discussion boards empower learners. They get an active role in their learning journey. And, because they’ve invested themselves in the process, they’re more likely to want it to succeed.
  • Closer connections: Remote learning has many benefits. But studying in isolation out of the office can be demotivating. Discussion forums soften the impact of transactional distance between learners and give instructors a supportive and active presence in the process.
  • A culture of learning: Taking learning away from an exclusively formal setting, sends out a powerful message that training is valued in its own right. This, in turn, fosters a growth mindset and culture of learning within your organization.
  • More inclusivity: Some learners shy away from engaging in discussions in a face-to-face, live setting but find their confidence and “voice” in online forums.

Discussion boards in eLearning | TalentLMS

11 ways to use discussion boards in training

As we’ve seen, there are lots of good reasons to include discussion forums in your online training programs. But starting a discussion and simply waiting to create engagement is like talking to an empty room.

You need a topic, you need an audience, and you need a goal.

This means that you could have different discussion boards for different purposes. To help you decide what type or types of forums to use and how to do so, we’ve listed some of the most popular approaches below.

1. Pre-course prep

Using group discussion functionality, students can ask questions about what to expect from a course and find out if they need to do any work or research in advance. On their part, instructors could share materials that learners might want to check before the course or presentation.

This forum also gives training managers a chance to assess and prepare for knowledge gaps.

2. Icebreakers and introductions

Sharing a short biography and some interesting personal facts is a great way for instructors to reduce transactional distance and establish credibility, authenticity, and approachability at the start of a course.

Instructors can then encourage learners to do the same thing for a week or so, using different media to introduce themselves. This type of forum is also a good way of introducing guest speakers or external instructors.

Discussion boards in TalentLMS - A learner replies to a thread
Screenshot via TalentLMS – A learner replies to a thread

3. Support mid-course

Remember a time when you missed a class at school and asked a fellow student to pass their notes? Well, discussion boards create a more structured way of sharing notes when taking a course.

Supporting a blended learning approach, discussion groups help learners and trainers keep track, stay on topic, and catch up on what they’ve missed if they didn’t make it to the scheduled session.

4. Peer-to-peer review

Rather than being instructor-led, this type of forum hands power over to learners. Here, they can facilitate and take control of the discussion, asking questions, and sharing thoughts and feedback on a specific topic or course away from the formality of the course structure.

This kind of discussion board is a great motivator too, because it prompts learners who might not have invested as much time in the course to keep up.

5. Question & answer

Time to focus. A Q&A-based discussion board is all about clarity. It’s a quick way for learners to check they’ve understood something or check out a concern without having to wait for the next formal session.

Instructors could also quickly check in and coordinate with their learners.

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6. Group projects

Give learners a safe and intimate space to share ideas about a specific topic by setting up small (5-10 learner) discussion groups. Each group could explore a slightly different aspect of the same topic. And then mix the groups up by moving learners around to help ideas cross-pollinate.

If you’re running a leadership course, for example, get different groups to research and present a report on whether a well-known figure could be considered a good leader.

7. Role-playing

Assign roles or characters to students and then give them scenarios to act out in specially designed online discussion forums.

Let’s say you want to train your sales team on effective communication, for example. Provide individuals in your group with a different brief and observe and feedback on their “performance.”

8. Additional learning

With time restrictions in place, it can be difficult to expand on concepts or theories raised in a formal eLearning session. Or, explore side issues in-depth.

An additional learning forum gives members the chance to discuss concepts that the formal training session might not have time to cover in detail.

9. Capturing informal knowledge

Formal training is great at targeting the knowledge gaps that have been pre-identified by course instructors. But what about the knowledge gaps that only your learners know about? Tap into the insights of your employees by giving them a forum to share their experiences and on-the-job tactics.

For example, if it’s a course about customer service, what behavioral knowledge have your learners gathered from working on the front line in a retail store or in a call center setting? And what tactics have they employed to deal with this?

10. Post-course reinforcement

According to Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve and subsequent research, we forget about 90% of what we learn within a month without recall. Which means fixed training sessions without any follow-up lose their credibility.

Keep the discussion and the learning going with post-course discussion groups. For example, share quizzes so that learners can test their knowledge, or give them assignments so they can practice their skills. Or, you could simply share additional resources sometime after they’ve completed a course to refresh their memory.

Discussion boards in TalentLMS - An instructor starts a new topic
Screenshot via TalentLMS – An instructor starts a new topic

11. Assignment feedback

If your learners have to deliver an assignment at the end of their course, create a targeted discussion group to help them share their work.

By inviting comments and feedback (and by opening the ground up for comparisons), they’ll be inspired to make improvements. Ultimately, this raises the overall level of attainment across the group.

Using discussion boards in TalentLMS

If you’re managing your eLearning through TalentLMS, you and your users can communicate with each other through Discussions, a forum-like communication tool. Enabled by default for all users, Discussions helps you build a sense of community across your portal.

How does it work? The setup is simple and straightforward. Instructors (and learners who’ve been assigned the relevant permissions) can create new discussions on different topics and invite other users to join, view, and comment.

From a single page, you’ll be able to view all discussions, sort them the way it makes more sense, and filter them for quicker navigation.

How to sort discussion boards in TalentLMS
Screenshot via TalentLMS – How to sort Discussions

To make your content more interactive and engaging, TalentLMS lets you bring discussions into courses as individual units. To do this, simply allow “Only specific users can see this topic” and pick the relevant course when setting up your new discussion.

You can also enhance your discussions by attaching external files to a topic.

Lastly, even though discussions are meant for interaction, you can also use this feature as your personal note-taking space. All you have to do is create a new discussion and mark the topic as private.

Want to learn more about how to use Discussions in TalentLMS? Here are some useful resources:

Time to talk

Only 10% of what we learn at work comes from formal training. The rest comes from on-the-job experiences and social interactions. Discussion groups support both of these. They give learners a chance to talk. And they provide a safe and structured space to share hands-on experiences.

With discussion groups integrated into your eLearning program, you can leverage the power of one of your greatest training resources—your learners.


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