By Stacey M Johnson, Assistant Director for Educational Technology, Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching
Discussion boards are arguably the most important part of the online course. In a traditional f2f classroom, students see each other and interact in the physical classroom space. In an online course, discussion boards provide that same visible, interactive space for students to interact academically and socially with their peers. Asynchronous, online discussions where students can process the material, interact with each other, and form a collaborative community are key to successful online teaching.
If you are using the discussion boards provided through Brightspace, here are the guides for building forums and topics in your course.
Whether you use the discussion forums that come with the course management system or rely on an external tool as the conversation hub, just having an online discussion space available probably won’t be enough to get students actively engaging. The instructor will need to craft discussion prompts, activities, and/or formats that are purposeful, interactive, and that students recognize as meaningful learning experiences.
What are the possibilities for how to effectively make use of a discussion board? There are many great ways to organize a discussion board, and you can mix and match according to the goals of your course. Here are a few possibilities to get you started.
Possibility #1: Classroom Assessment Techniques
For faculty who are just getting started with online teaching, this can be an especially useful way to engage with students on the discussion boards. After students review asynchronous content and/or attend a synchronous class session, a quick Classroom Assessment Technique (CAT) can provide both students and instructor with information about how learning is happening.
Here are two examples of CATs from the CFT teaching guide on the topic. Check out the guide for more information on how to effectively use CATs in class.
The Minute Paper tests how students are gaining knowledge, or not. The instructor ends class by asking students to write a brief response to the following questions: “What was the most important thing you learned during this class?” and “What important question remains unanswered?”
The Muddiest Point is one of the simplest CATs to help assess where students are having difficulties. The technique consists of asking students to jot down a quick response to one question: “What was the muddiest point in [the lecture, discussion, homework assignment, film, etc.]?” The term “muddiest” means “most unclear” or “most confusing.”
Clearly, these two types of CATs could be easily deployed on a discussion board as a quick way to check in with students and ensure that they are processing what they are learning. Any questions that students post about the content can then be answered by the instructor using text or video, or a reference to the course materials where that answer can be found. Students can even chime in and help to answer each other’s questions!
In general, having some sort of discussion space where students can post questions about the course is important in most courses. Without the regular in-person contact of a physical classroom, a discussion board that elicits student questions is an important way for faculty to signal to students that their questions are welcome and valued.
Possibility #2: Collaborative Note Taking
Asking students to share their class notes or use a collaborative document to create a thorough notes collection is a practice that has two main benefits. First, for students who have holes in their notes or need to review certain concepts in more depth, collaborative note taking provides a central location for that sort of review. Importantly, it keeps the notes in full view of the instructor who can also keep track of discussion and look out for misunderstandings or missing information. The second main benefit is accessibility. Some students may face obstacles in note taking. The Student Access Office may even assign that student a designated note taker to facilitate note sharing. When faculty include collaborative note taking in the discussion boards, that barrier to student access is removed completely making the course more accessible to all.
This blog post about the CFT’s Joe Bandy and his collaborative note-taking practice might be useful in thinking through what a collaborative note taking discussion board might look like.
Possibility #3: Social Connections
Some faculty worry that when they move their courses online, they will miss out on the sharing and informal conversation that bubbles up in the moments just before and after class. However, discussion boards can be designed to serve as an asynchronous space for those kinds of interactions. If you want to encourage chatting and social connections in your class, consider creating one special discussion area that is ongoing throughout the semester just for casual interactions and social presence. On the other hand, for students, it can be confusing that some discussion boards in the course are more academic and others are more social. Here are a few ideas to help students engage well with your social space.
- Clearly label the social space
Make sure that the name and instructions clarify what kinds of interactions will take place in each discussion forum. If most of the discussion boards require more academic responses, but one is a social space, provide clear guidance for students about what kinds of posts are appropriate, how often, and directed and what audience.
- Model appropriate posts and responses
In addition to telling students how to engage in the space through naming conventions and instructions, the instructor can jump in and model social presence online by posting and responding to student posts. Some examples: At the beginning of the week, you may jump in and ask students what was the highlight of their weekend. Or, if you see a news story that connects to the course content in some way, post a link and ask students to weigh in. You may decide to post a picture of your pet and ask to see pictures of your students’ pets. Whatever you would feel comfortable sharing in your f2f classroom can also make for great conversation in your asynchronous discussion boards.
- Encourage student participation
How will you get students to engage in the social space? In the first few weeks of the course, you may need to do a bit more modeling to help students get comfortable with the norms and possibilities. Perhaps you could mention during synchronous meetings that there is a fun post in the social space and you would love to see their answers. You could organize weekly trivia questions or an ice-breaker game like two truths and a lie. Assigning points or giving critical feedback on casual social interactions would be counterproductive, but how else can you invite students to join in?
Possibility #4: Instructor Prompt & Student Response
This may be the sort of discussion board most people consider when they think of online teaching. The instructor posts a follow up question, a problem, or an unresolved issue for students to respond to. The difficulty with this type of “prompt and response” format is that it can quickly get boring when more than a few students are contributing to the discussion. Riggs and Linder address this problem in their IDEA paper on the topic of active asynchronous online learning. Here is an excerpt from page 7 of that paper:
One of the most common question formats for online asynchronous discussions is for instructors to pose a question or brief list of questions, and then to ask students to first reply to the question(s) provided and then to return later to reply to the responses of two peers…Imagine a face-to-face course where the instructor poses one question, and then goes around the room and asks every individual student to reply to it. After just a few replies, there would be little of value left to add. Further imagine that the instructor went around the room again, asking each student to remark on two other students’ already-repetitive and tiresome answers.
No instructor wants to set up such a boring and repetitive experience for students. So how can we post prompts and require students to respond without falling into the trap of “line up and answer”? Here are a few tips for making prompts more meaningful and more useful for learning.
- Draw on the initial discussion board posts for further learning activities
Faculty can give instructions for the original student post to be a substantial contribution and require that the second post synthesize, compare, or evaluate the original posts in some way other than just “respond to two classmates”. For example, in the first post, students may all post their approaches to solving a particularly complex problem. As a follow up, students may have to submit an assignment directly to the instructor where they choose 3 of their classmates’ potential solutions and describe the pros and cons of each approach. Another potential follow-up activity to the original post might be choosing one post that is significantly different from your own and asking 2-3 follow up questions to understand why that person made those choices. Or perhaps students can use the data from the initial posts to mock up a creative data visualization of how the class responded. That work can then shared on the discussion boards or turned in as a formative assessment.
An initial post of “line up and respond” can be much more useful for learning when the second post is more than just responding to the responses and is not the very same procedure every week. How can students use some or all of the data from the first round of responses to engage more deeply with the content? How can we ask students to do a variety of interesting activities with those initial responses? How can we get students to dig deeper, compare, contrast, synthesize, question, and extend based on the discussion board answers?
- Form small discussion groups
Small groups help establish three conditions that enable the “respond to the prompt” type of discussions to thrive. First, deep, reflective, substantive conversations are effective when the parties involved know and trust each other. Forming consistent small groups for regular discussion allows group members to listen carefully to a handful of colleagues and, over time, develop a feeling of belonging in that group. Second, small groups limit the number of students lining up to respond to a prompt and to each other, meaning fewer responses are repetitive and there is more incentive to engage with each other. Finally, in a group of dozens of students, it is easy for any one student to just sit the discussion out. With so many posts, who will even notice one missing student? However, with small groups of four to six people everyone’s voice becomes essential to the conversation. Knowing that your words will matter creates motivation to engage.
- Choose topics for discussion that are exciting or energizing
There are lots of topics that students love discussing online. All of social media is filled with people passionately discussing topics of interest in asynchronous online forums. You can choose discussion prompts that ask students to connect the course content to their own interests. You can bring in current events. You can bring in first person accounts for analysis. Discussion boards can be places where students discover how much fun it is to discuss academic concepts that have real world implications.
Possibility #5: Portfolio or Multimedia Presentation Space
The discussion board is the one space built into the course management system where students can see and interact with each other’s work. Make the most of that possibility by creating a discussion topic where each student starts a thread that showcases their work during the semester. Fellow students can drop into each other’s spaces to offer feedback or encouragement or to get inspiration for their own work.
You can find more ideas about how to engage students using portfolio tools outside the LMS in this paper by Riggs and Linder.
Even more possibilities
Here are a few resources with creative, unusual, and exciting ideas for discussion boards.
- Discussion Boards: Valuable? Overused? Discuss. (Lieberman, 2019) [news article]
- Five New Twists for Online Discussions (Berry & Kowal, 2019) [blog post]
- 10 Tips for Effective Online Discussions (Simon, 2018) [blog post]
- For writing courses: Conversation Starters: Orchestrating Asynchronous Discussion to Build Academic Community among First-year Writers (Seward) [online article]
- For language courses: Are Discussion Forums Really Interactive? Ideas for Purposeful Asynchronous Communication [webinar]
And here are a few ideas for learning activities that might replace discussion boards altogether in your online course. We will discuss several of these in more depth in the next section called “Other Interactive Tools”:
- Teaching with Blogs (Oliver & Coble, 2016) [teaching guide]
- Flipgrid: Empowering Voices with Asynchronous Online Video Discussions (Murphy, 2020) [blog post]
- Creating Breakout Groups in Teams with Channels (Sederberg, 2020) [blog post]
- “@ Them and See What Happens”: Using Twitter in the Classroom (Lower, 2020) [blog post]
- Using Top Hat to Drive Student Engagement (Blocher, 2020) [blog post]
- Learning to Read Scientific Research Articles through Online Collaborative Annotation (Whippo, 2019) [online]
- Leveraging Student Interest through Social Bookmarking (Bruff, 2015) [blog post]
Review your module structure. How will discussions help students take in knowledge, process individually or with peers, or demonstrate their learning? Where will your discussion boards fit into your structure?
Which of the above possibilities for asynchronous discussions is most appealing to you? Write down some ideas for discussion prompts you can imagine using.
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