Online Learning: Using Discussion Boards

Discussion Boards can be a useful way to simulate classroom discussion, to elicit opinions and analysis, to have students build upon each other’s ideas, or to create or extend a sense of classroom community.   Whether you use a Learning Management System or social media as your platform, preparing the conversations can enhance the quality of the discussion.  Creating the assignment might include thinking about Before the discussion, Setting up a discussion, During the discussion, and After the discussion

Before the discussion

– Getting students ready:  Begin with an easy assignment – who they are, where they grew up, what is the first politics event they remember, etc. This can give them a chance to learn how to use the discussion board

– Giving students specific directions – this many words, by this time/date (including time zone)

– Let students know how the discussion will be assessed/graded – here’s one rubric

– The instructor’s goals for the assignment: are you trying to focus on students exploring or debating or building upon each other’s ideas?  Are you trying to build “classroom community”?  Or some combination?


Setting up a discussion

– Thinking about the assignment – regular good teaching practices apply:  why are we doing this assignment, what do I hope the student will get out of it? Why are we doing this online-discussion format (instead of writing an essay, posting a video, etc).  How is it tied to other things we are doing?

– How can we include universal design principles?

– Shaping the question.  We want a question that will create discussion. This means avoiding a simple yes/no or single-correct-answer – instead we want more open-ended hows and whys.  Examples include questions that can:

– elicit competing ideas / debate [“Do you agree with the author’s premise that….”]
– produce unique answers [“Drawing from a real-work example” or “How can you solve this problem”]
– draw from earlier parts of the course [“Compare this article to any one that we read in Week 3 or 4…”]

– You probably want to avoid “Yes/No” questions unless they are debatable:  Yes, because… or No, because… can elicit reasoning and dialogue.  You probably want to avoid questions that have a single correct answer:  “2,451 miles.”

– An assignment might offer multiple questions – not just one prompt – because students might be moved by different parts of the material or because after the first few students have written on one topic students might feel that topic is already well covered

– Sometimes I also allow students to create their own prompts – “Please respond to one of these, or pose your own prompt and respond to it” – sometimes students ask good questions I hadn’t thought of

– Set the tone – offer a sample good response – give guidance and examples.  You can see examples here at 3CQ model or here on govt396 – there are many other rubrics online.  Do you want 50-word answers and responses, or 500 words?  Is Discussion – that is, students interacting with each other – what you want for this task? Why?

– Set the tone, part 2 – During the first couple of discussions, you may want to specify that this is classroom discussion, not locker room. Basic courtesies are expected and abuse, discrimination, even unkindness etc. that we might see elsewhere online will not be tolerated here

– Requiring participation allows students that might not usually be heard in the classroom a chance at equal footing

– When are student contributions due? Student’s first prompt-response Tuesday at 9pm?  Student responses to at least two classmates by Thursday at 9pm?

– You might begin with classwide discussions, or with discussions in small groups (depends in part on size of class)


During the discussion

– Format:  synchronous or asynchronous?  Why?  Probably you mean for this to be asynchronous, with students having some time (a couple of days? responses to each other the day after that?) between seeing the question and posting their answers.  Asynchronous allows time for thoughtful reflection. It also serves some students (who don’t raise their hands fast and frequently) prefer to think about an answer rather than shout out in class

– Allow anonymous posts?  Allow a student to edit or delete their posts?

– Instructor’s choice of intensive moderating vs. hands-off

– Make sure students know you are there – even if you are not commenting or grading…. You are listening and hearing…

– Is text the only way to contribute?  Or also videos, slides, etc?

– Opportunity for students to change their minds, elaborate, answer peers’ questions, your questions, etc?


After the discussion

– What will you do with the prompts – “correct them” or ask follow-up questions? Do students have to respond to your follow-up questions?


A few resources: 

Ann Ferren Conference panel with AU’s Melissa Scholes Young and two students on building an online learning community

Special thanks to Stef Woods for her help preparing this


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