Creating Engaging Discussion Board Conversations

-By Mark Prestopnik, Assistant Director of Online Teaching and Learning

DiscussionBoard_MonitorInstructors new to teaching online courses and those seeking to build increasingly blended courses often wonder how they can leverage the discussion board as an effective tool to support student learning. Discussion boards have the potential to increase engagement, keep students connected to the content, help instructors to direct student focus, and deepen understanding of content through critical thinking. When used tactically, the discussion board can be an effective medium for idea exchange and a useful tool to support student learning.

Comparing Face-to-Face Discussion to Online Discussion

A common equivalency is often made between discussion forums in online courses and classroom discussions in face-to-face courses. While this comparison is generally accurate, there are levels of quality and value derived from online discussion forums, as are there levels of value and meaning derived from any activity in various learning modalities.

There is always the possibility of a dry and forced conversation in the physical classroom that does little to advance student learning. In the online environment, there can be equally disengaged discussion forum experiences, where students are simply asked to regurgitate what they’ve read. In other cases, the interaction (student to student and instructor to student) seems to only reach a level of faint praise of one another’s discussion posts. In these and other cases, the discussion board merely exists to serve perfunctory activity, where everyone goes through the motions without advancing learning in a meaningful way. Keep reading below to find suggestions for creating effective discussions, and to recognize pitfalls to avoid.


DiscussionBoard_MobileThe use of a variety of learning tools and activities in any course forms interesting student learning experiences that holds students attention, and helps them to think and demonstrate comprehension in a variety of ways. In this blog post the focus is exclusively on use of the discussion board. Its asynchronous nature affords students the ability to engage at their convenience, from any location and from nearly any device (computer, tablet or mobile). Students who may not be vocal in the classroom have equal footing with other students. No longer do students have the ability to hide in the back of the classroom. Each student’s level of participation is out in the open and they can be held accountable for their performance. The performance dashboard along with the discussion board’s grading capability provides metrics on level of participation that instructors can use to assess students.

Strategies for Creating Effective Online Discussions

Before we dive into strategies, it’s also important to realize that these strategies work for fully online courses and for blended learning in face-to-face courses. Here are a variety of strategies to consider:

  • Use the discussion board to flip your classroom. Doing so prepares students to engage in collaborative work during classroom sessions. Students can come to class with a baseline level of understanding in the topic after completing readings, viewing content and participating in asynchronous discussions. Thus, classroom time is much more productive with students prepared and ready to apply concepts. Here are some strategies to consider:
  • Give students a variety of questions to choose from. For example, have students respond to 2 out of 4 questions posted. This provides students with the ability to answer questions that resonate with them, while increasing diversity of discussion. Providing question options also provides students with the opportunity to participate and respond to questions that they didn’t answer initially.
  • Use videos, podcasts, or guest lectures as jumping off points for discussions. Introducing content in a variety of ways engages students at different levels.
  • Use interviews, concert reviews, and other physical experiences. Just because the form is written doesn’t always require the process to be. Require students to go out and do or experience something, and then come back to the discussion board to discuss.
  • DiscussionBoard_ThoughtBubblePose stimulating and thought provoking questions. Write questions in a way that requires students to reflect personally while also weaving in evidence from course materials and outside research. Resist the urge to spoon-feed your students. Make them more active participants in their own learning.
  • Use role playing activities, assign students as discussion leaders, or have students provide discussion forum recaps. Mix things up! Challenge your students to take a more prominent role in both their learning, as well as their classmates’ learning. Step aside and re-direct the students if they veer of course.
  • Learn who each student is, in both a learner/academic sense, as well a personal sense. This will allow you to best support each individual’s learning trajectory with follow-up and prodding type responses appropriate to their level of development and lived experiences. As the course progresses, don’t be ashamed to revisit introductory assignments, discussion posts and other get to know you activities in order to get a better contextualize their coursework. If you are not requiring such activities, add them! (Caveat: Some students may be less forthcoming with personal information than others. Don’t pressure students into revealing personal information unless they are comfortable doing so).

Pitfalls & How to Avoid Them

  • Refrain from asking questions where the answer can be easily looked up, and then parroted back. Save lower order comprehension questions for short checkup quizzes.
  • Avoid asking the same type of question each week (e.g. asking what about this week’s reading did you find interesting?). Avoid being repetitive and, as a result, boring your students.
  • Don’t over or under communicate. Establish consistent communication patterns so that you can engage with discussion posts without taking them over. There is a delicate balance to find, with the extremes being:
    • Waiting until the end of the week to respond to students. Your students are led to believe that you don’t read their posts, and thus what they write doesn’t matter much.
    • Responding to every student post. You dominate the discussion and crowd out your students from thinking through the content themselves. Let the conversation breathe a bit by allowing students the opportunity to engage with each other. Of course, each discussion is unique and will require a certain deftness by the instructor on when to chime in and redirect the conversation, and when to fall back and let students work through some complexity.

Best Practices

It’s essential that you provide clear and comprehensive instructions for your students on expectations concerning the discussion board. Students’ past experiences using discussion boards may vary greatly, as do the level of importance that their previous instructors placed upon them.

  • State in your syllabus exactly how you will be assessing students’ discussion board performance, and how you expect them to use the discussion board. Provide an online discussion rubric that identifies student performance levels and the corresponding grade that they will earn.
  • Emphasize that initial discussion responses must be posted by mid-week (set an actual date and time), in order to provide ample time for follow-up questions and student-student and student-instructor dialogue to take place during the second half of the week.
  • Be specific on how students should interact with their classmates. Provide a minimum number of replies and give students a sense of what replies should consist of.
  • Provide individual and class level feedback on discussion board performance within the first 2-3 weeks of the course. This is your opportunity to emphasize the value you place on online discussions, and to correct inconsistencies early on. Point students back to rubrics and other expectations in your feedback.

Integrating the above tips regarding discussion boards as part of a comprehensive learning strategy will put you well on your way to creating a valuable learning experience that engages your students.

We Want to Hear from You!

Have any great experiences for online discussions that have occurred in a course that you were a part of? Please share in the comments below!

Additional Resources for Duquesne Faculty

Links and resources for effective use the discussion board 

Samples of online discussion guidelines & rubrics (customize for your course)

Additional Resources for Everyone

See our previous post, “Earning an A+ in Online Feedback”, to learn more about how to leave effective feedback for your online students.



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