Discussion boards have the potential to play a big role in online teaching and learning, but how can you ensure that students are gaining useful educational experience from them? While there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, there are some best practices you can use as guidelines to help you keep your discussion boards a productive and engaging part of your course.

Setting Up Discussion Boards

Before you can get to the actual discussion part of the discussion board, you need to set things up in Blackboard. 

Developing Discussion Board Questions

A lot of the issues that instructors face when utilizing discussion boards in class (students just agree with each other or repeat the same responses) can actually be resolved with some preparation before the start of the class. By this, we mean crafting an engaging discussion prompt that’s open ended and gives students a chance to engage in a meaningful conversation. Here are some tips that can make that process easier and more successful. 

Find inspiration. While it might be tempting to use discussion questions from a textbook or publisher materials, you may get better results if you get a little more creative. Is there a short YouTube video that addresses a relevant topic? Is there a guest speaker who could talk to your class? A work of art students can analyze? 

Include open ended questions. You’re likely going to get the same or similar answers over and over again unless the questions are open-ended enough to allow for multiple viewpoints.

Look for ways to showcase critical thinking. Do you teach in a discipline where problem solving is a major component? Consider posting a complex problem for students to solve together. Students first post their own answers and rationale, then work together to come to a consensus on the answer. They can post their answer as a group along with their process for solving the problem. 

Determine your objective. Different courses will use the discussion board in different ways. Before writing your questions, decide what the purpose of the student answers will be. Do you want students to pull concepts from this week’s lessons? Do you want them to reflect on a topic? Challenge them to debate a point? 

Decide how students will post. Will students be able to see others’ responses before posting their own? Would you rather them work in smaller groups? Would videos work better than text? These kinds of factors can impact the kinds of questions you will want to ask and how you’ll structure the discussion boards in your class, so you’ll want to make this decision early on in your process.

Check out our Knowledge Base post on Strategies for Developing Effective Discussion Questions.

Managing Online Discussions

One of the biggest jobs you’ll have in using discussion boards is managing them as the course goes on. Here are some ways that you can make that task more enjoyable, easier, and effective.

Post explicit engagement guidelines. Engagement guidelines can be included in the syllabus or be a separate document which list the expectations you have of the participants in the course. These can include; due dates for discussion or reflection based activities, the schedule and types of interactions you hope to have in synchronous sessions, the tone of reflection/discussion posts (casual discussion vs. formal posts), the type of participation students can expect from the instructor throughout the course, and response times students can expect from instructors when awaiting replies to questions.

Model discussion posts for students. Early in the term, the instructor should have a high amount of presence in class discussions and should create posts that act as a model for students. Once established, the role of the instructor will change within the discussions since studies find that too much presence by the instructor in course discussions can lead to a decline in student engagement.

Enforce proper netiquette. Your online classroom should be an environment that is open, inclusive and trusted. A list of “class laws” or reminders will help reinforce these expectations.  Things to be mindful are; no SHOUTING, use humor carefully since not all humor comes across in writing, keep messages brief, be specific, and use appropriate language.

Be present. Visit the discussion frequently during the week and let students know you’re reading and enjoying their conversation.

Talk to all students and point out successes. Each week be sure you notice something that each student has contributed to the learning community and make a point of posting at least one message to every student.

Summarize the discussions. Sometimes this happens early in the week or more than once, depending on the nature of the students’ participation and contributions. This is something you can model and encourage by seeing the big picture and pulling out the big ideas the group talked about during the week. Your summary might end with another nudge that bridges this week’s discussion to the next module topics.

Make students feel valued. You can do this in a variety of ways. For example, when a student says something that grabs your attention, include a quote in your reply. It’s very affirming to have your own words recognized and valued by your instructor. Always use the student’s name to begin a posting and always ‘sign’ it with your own name.

Nudge students to engage and take responses further. Acknowledge the message, affirm what the student has said and contributed, and then offer a gentle nudge to extend his or her thinking or to encourage connections between personal thoughts and words and those of classmates.

Connect ideas. One of the most important things you can model through your own postings is the importance of finding the connections between what someone has posted and comments shared by other students earlier or elsewhere in the discussion.

Check out our Knowledge Base article on Managing Effective Online Discussions.

Grading Online Discussions

It can be difficult to determine how to grade students for their participation in a discussion board. Here are some ideas to get you started.

Develop a rubric. One of the best things you can do is to develop a rubric. This will allow you to more fairly assess each student. Decide how many posts they need to make, what constitutes a meaningful post, and the basic expectations of each response.

Don’t respond to everything. Not only is this time consuming, it can also make it harder for students to discuss things among themselves. Give feedback when needed, and gently guide students back on track or who are posting incorrect information.

Keep up with assessment. Have a schedule for when you’ll check in on what students have posted and your assessment of it. Falling behind can make it hard to catch up as discussion boards can contain hundreds of posts.

Additional Resources