Answer student questions with a virtual coffee shop

Posted on: September 26, 2012 | By: Victoria Shropshire | Filed under: Instructional Technologies, Moodle, Teaching & Learning

Guest Post by Victoria Shropshire – English Instructor

Coffee Shop signForums can be used in a variety of ways in any course, but at their heart, they encourage and increase writing.  At a University where writing across the curriculum is one of our most pressing goals, why not embrace a technology that is easy to use and (in my experience) increases student engagement as well?

Forums are also a great way to engage students and give them time to Think before Class. Or (gasp) Think before they Speak!  Forums can help facilitate original posts and peer review. 

The virtual coffee shop

But let’s start with Baby Steps, shall we? I always suggest a Virtual Coffee Shop Forum for those instructors (and students too) who are new to Moodle. It is not attached to any assessment and yet very quickly allows all the users to acclimate to how truly beneficial Forums can be.

The virtual coffee shop is a Forum that I create in all of my courses.  It lives in the top topic area; students know that it will never move or migrate as some other course materials may. On the first day of class, I have all students log into Moodle and click on it as I explain what it is and how it works. I use the description space when creating it that reminds them of its purpose every time they use it. I create the forum so that all students are subscribed for the entire course.  Pasted from the syllabus:

This is a great place to chat with classmates and your professor and ask questions related to the overall class. (This is NOT the place for asking questions that ONLY pertain to you or your grade. Those posts will not be answered here.) Think of it as the virtual version of raising your hand in class to ask a GENERAL question. This is also a great place to search for answers BEFORE emailing your professor, as someone may have already asked your question and you can read the answer here! Remember that this is an open forum and available to all classmates and your instructor, and Netiquette decorum applies.

So students use the forums with the understanding that when they post to this community space, all others in the class can see their comment/question, and ALL other students in the course also see my response (which I try not to make too snarky, as in “The Mysteries You Seek Are in your Syllabus, Page 3…”). It is also clear that I expect this space to be used responsibly.


  • Free Your Inbox! – Your inbox is free of seven students in one section all emailing you with the same question. You get to answer it once, and you know they all saw it, saving everyone time and energy, most of all you!
  • Student Engagement! – Students at some point will begin to engage one another (usually when a research assignment is in progress) and begin answering their own questions. How great is that? Anyone who subscribes to social pedagogy (as I do) will love this aspect. Students know that I am out there and will “dial in” to make sure the feedback/answers they are receiving from peers are accurate, but it makes the Forum an even better tool.
  • Positive Reinforcement! – When you reward those who ask questions and compliment them in positive ways in a community space, it can go a long way to providing support to that shy student, or the student who lacks confidence. (Ex: “What a thoughtful question! Good connection!”) Seems silly? Students don’t think so.
  • Professional Communications! – Students can practice the language of professional communications. Moodle is slim on the emoticons and other digital crutches that they have in IM or email platforms, and I refrain as much as possible from using them there as well. This is always an excellent writing skill for all students to practice.

Writing is evolving

Students are out there, writing and contributing to digital spaces, and it is our responsibility as educators to help them do it responsibly as they become global citizens. Students and their tools will continue to evolve and become more complex and if I remember from reading Darwin, those who don’t evolve become dinner for those who do. I realize many are (shall I say it?) afraid to use the Forums in Moodle (or other tools) but using them in a way that is not assessment oriented and useful to every member of the community is easier than you think! Try a Virtual Coffee Shop of your own!


Step-by-step directions for creating a Virtual Coffee Shop Forum in Moodle. Please note – to create a forum where students can ask questions anonymously, select Advanced Forum instead of Forum.

Your ideas

Do you have other new/fun/useful ideas for Moodle forums? We’d love to hear about them. Share your ideas in the comments section below.

Image by Flickr user joseph aCreative Commons licensed BY-NC-SA 2.0


8 responses to “Answer student questions with a virtual coffee shop”

  1. Richard Perry says:

    I’m interested in trying the Coffee Shop Forum idea, and the how-to is thorough in going step-by-step.
    But it doesn’t offer much in choosing “Ratings,” “Posting Thresholds” etc. as I set it up. What seems a good number for blocking thresholds, and why?

  2. Dan Reis says:

    A blocking threshold prevents a student from posting too many things in a forum. It can be helpful to limit a students who may be dominating a conversation. If you want to limit their posts, set a threshold based on the number of times you want to allow them to post in a given time period (three times a day, four times a week, etc). Otherwise, I would leave the blocking threshold to “Don’t block.”

  3. Chris Dorado says:

    My first question would be how to set up the coffee shop forum site. If a person wants to ask a question in class but time runs short for one reason or another then the forum would be a good place to pose the question. But in addition the to the teacher answering the question it would seem that a teacher’s aid or another student might answer the same question with confidence. I would be interested in seeing how it works. Thank you.

  4. DUI Attorney says:

    This coffee shop forum style learning is popping up all over universities. I’m a little older and I understand that times have changed and the way students learn today have dramatically changed; however, one of the reasons I stayed in school was for the friendships that I made. I basically went to school (and learn a lot) because I wanted to be around my friends and meet new people. I hope that coffee shop forums (as much as I see the benefit in them as a teaching style) do not completely replace the tradition classroom type setting. Thank you for post. Its amazing how technology has changed our way of learning.

  5. Daniel says:

    I agree with Dan Reis’ post. The system seems great but undoubtedly some students will dominate the conversation without a block as to how many questions can be posed in the coffe shop forum. God bless.

  6. Victoria Shropshire says:

    Hi Chris! I use Coffee Shop Forums in a very casual way. I would say (loosely) that there will be one or two questions posted per week in the first half of a given semester of study, with that number rising (3-5 per week) in the later weeks of the term, as assignments in my course become more involved, and more research-laden. Often in these later weeks, student will indeed answer the questions of other students; I simply monitor it to make sure they are answering correctly. It’s very freeing on the ol’ inbox!!

  7. Victoria Shropshire says:

    I’m sorry Chris! Did I address your original question? The setup for the Coffee Shop Forum is a simple (cascading) Forum. In any block of your Moodle course site, in the bottom right, click on “add an activity or resource”. When you click in Forum and Advanced Forum, you can see the difference in the descriptions that pop up next to them. I use a Forum and insert directions on how I expect it to be used in the “description” box of that Forum setup. I set the “subscription and tracking” to forced, which means that this is a true community space, so every student/user sees every post and reply in this forum. Hope that helps!

  8. Victoria Shropshire says:

    Hello Christopher.

    The Coffee Shop does not substitute actual face-to-face interaction with the professor; it is a supplement for weekends and other times when schedules prohibit physically meeting. Oftentimes, in fact, students working in small groups contact me via the Coffee Shop in order to request a face-to-face meeting time for us all, which keeps all of our inboxes from getting packed! It also helps in reducing student stress, as it lets them know that the professor is willing to help them if they only ask. In online courses, the coffee shop is used more that in traditional (classroom) courses, but it is a great place to answer questions that, if those students were in a traditional space, would have been asked by raising a hand and communicating it directly. In general, it’s a great technology tool that I feel helps develop relationships between student and professor, which are essential to college success still. (That has NOT changed!) :o)