How to navigate online forums

Navigating online forums

Some things are inescapable for online students.

One such thing is online forums, where online students have discussions with other students and professors. According to Northern Virginia Community College, "When you write in online discussions, it is like you are 'talking' in a regular classroom. In turn, when you read what your classmates write in online discussions, it is like you are 'listening' to them talk in a regular classroom."

In other words, online forums are important to class participation, and communication in general, with your classmates and sometimes professors. But to really benefit from them and contribute, you should follow these three online forum rules of etiquette.

1. Write well and don't forget the rules of grammar

Just because your professor isn't grading your every word in online forums doesn't give you license to go crazy with the English language. You should treat the actual grammar and sentence structure in the same way you would treat a paper, while realizing it's targeted to fellow students and not your professor.

According to that same article by Northern Virginia Community College, there are a few writing practices you should keep in mind that will show you're smartly aware of how you're portraying yourself:

  1. Use clear sentence structure, grammar and syntax.
  2. Don't use texting shortcuts (U instead of you, 2 instead of to, etc.).
  3. Your forum writing doesn't have to be perfect at all times, but you should always strive to be understood and avoid careless mistakes. Your readers shouldn't have to try and interpret what you're trying to say.
  4. Always read what you wrote before clicking "submit."

2. Read what others have written first before formulating a reply

If you're logging in while your classmates are engaged in a deep, online forum discussion, don't merely read the top post and then scroll down and reply. You need to read through all the responses to consider what others think and where the discussion has headed before jumping in. You should do this for three reasons:

  1. You don't want to repeat what's already been said.
  2. Not doing so makes it seem like you don't care what other people think.
  3. You'll slow the discussion down otherwise, which may lead to you being branded "the annoying one."

After reading through all of the comments reply respectfully, using the person's name and not attacking anyone's character, even when disagreeing with their claims. Just because you're hidden behind a computer doesn't mean you should suddenly be mean.

3. Ask questions, disagree respectfully and back up your opinions

Like any healthy debate or discussion, while questions are what start the fire, disagreements are what often cause the fire to flare up. Backing up your opinions with facts and well-thought-out commentary keeps the fire going. Just make sure the disagreements are communicated respectfully or else the fire will burn out.

Not just any questions will do during a great discussion. Open-ended questions are the way to go when possible. According to the Rasmussen College blog, "Open-ended questions require individuals to write more than a simple one- or two-word answer. Open-ended questions require the use of critical thinking skills and allow individuals to reflect on their thoughts and feelings about a particular topic."

Rasmussen College also points out that providing reasons for your thoughts and opinions in any online discussion, especially forums for online school, is vital. "You may even choose to make a personal connection or share a personal experience with your classmates. Applying class information to real-world situations is a great way to demonstrate that you truly understand what you are learning."

If you back up your clear and concise writing, read what everyone else has written, ask open-ended questions and disagree respectfully, you'll likely contribute beautifully to the discussion and get the most out of it yourself.


Northern Virginia Community College, Success Strategies for Online Communication,

"Tips for Writing Thoughtful Discussion Responses," Rasmussen College, May 31, 2012,

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