What Makes for Successful, Compelling Discussion Boards?

Published: March 28th, 2016

Category: Blog

Discussion boards are a great way to assess a student’s understanding of a topic and to support critical thinking. They also build a community within the online classroom that fosters the development of peer review skills and collaboration. Allowing students time to reflect on the ideas presented and fully develop their responses before contributing to the board engages students who may not participate in a classroom discussion situation. However, these benefits can only be yielded when the discussion board adheres to certain guidelines. Sure, a good hook (prompt) is key, but you may be surprised how big of a role logistics play in creating a successful discussion board.

Here we will break down the elements of a successful discussion board into three basic categories:

  1. Foundation
    1. Plan to reserve some time to get started – Provide students with some support (tutorials) to make sure that all students know how to access and post on the discussion board. Additionally, provide them with a description of your Netiquette expectations. It is also recommended that your first discussion be a low-stakes introduction to your posting expectations, such as an “Introduce Yourself”, “Reason for Taking This Course”, or a “What you already know about the topic” board.
    2. Limit the size of discussion groups – Discussion groups should consist of about 8-10 group members depending on the subject and the size of the class. Smaller classes (20 or less) can get away with splitting the class in half. Groups that are too large will result in students only responding to the first few posts and not engaging fully with their classmates, while groups that are too small can limit the cultivation of ideas and hinder the discussions of an early-bird student who was grouped with mostly procrastinators. It’s also important to keep in mind drop/add week and to plan your groups accordingly (wait to form them until after finalization of the roster); the low-stakes discussion posts in the first week or two should be class-wide.
    3. Provide students with clear and specific grading guidelines – Providing rubrics that outline your expectations of writing mechanics, length, and content can help students focus on what’s relevant to the prompt and it helps to keep students’ responses brief.
  1. Moderation
    1. Model the level of communication you’d like to see from your students – Use Announcements regularly. Sharing news and information relevant to your course can be helpful in providing examples of how student responses should look. This can also help the student determine how formal or informal their responses should be.
    2. Once things are running, keep your distance as an instructor – After setting an example over the first couple weeks take a step back in formal discussion boards. As an instructor your role should be limited. You can/should still participate in the discussion but only to redirect, draw out the less active students, and facilitate the conversation. Additionally your interjection should come only after ample time has passed for another student to take this role. Be careful not to disregard a student’s opinion. For a very active class, it may be a good idea to set up a “General Topics” or “Student Lounge” board to channel off-topic discussions.
    3. Peer Review – Asking students to evaluate their peers, based on parameters set by the instructor (the same standards as noted in the rubric), promotes higher quality posts, interaction, and critical thinking. Students are more likely to develop their responses with greater care and attention to detail when they know that peers will be evaluating their work, and that they too will have to evaluate a peer’s work..
  1. Focus on the Objective – What skills, sensibilities and knowledge would you like your students to get out of this exercise?
    1. Choose the type of thinking you’d like to stimulate – Perhaps you want each group member to defend a certain point-of-view by taking on the role of someone else. Or, maybe you want the students to make predictions, find supportive evidence, or simply form an opinion of their own. This should align with your student learning objective for this module. See Aligning Assessments to SLOs for more on this topic.
      1. Convergent (why, how, what)
      2. Divergent (imagine, predict, if… then)
      3. Evaluative (defend, justify, what is your opinion?)
  1. Support higher-order thinking – Avoid questions that can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” Each student should be able to contribute a unique perspective. Make it a requirement to refer to the readings/lectures to support original ideas, predictions and opinions. The discussion board can serve as a resource of references for current and/or future assignments.
  2. Attach a grade to discussion posts and replies – Since your discussions are assessing a specific and measurable objective, make sure you’re attaching a grade to the discussions in your course. Having clear and explicit requirements and including a grading rubric will ensure that students receive valuable feedback to help improve their responses to future posts. Having a portion of the grade dependent on the replies ensures thoughtful contribution to that portion of the assignment too and encourages the dialogue between students.

For more information on Discussion Boards and Best Practices check out our Toolbox Page and these sources:

Edutopia – Mastering Online Discussion Boards
University of Oregon – Generating and Facilitating Engaging Effective Discussion Boards

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