Using discussion boards to increase online class engagement

Young woman with coffee working on laptop

As educators, we love to see our students get engaged in class! Interaction with peers as well as with their teacher is an important part of student learning. But how do we do this when the class is offered online? A discussion board, if used well, can be a great tool in providing a platform for quality interaction.

Almost all Learning Management Systems have this capability. If you are delivering your online course with software that lacks a discussion board, check to see if the publisher of your text has a tool for this purpose or search online for some free options.

Here are some tips provided by Pearson’s Faculty Advisors to help you get the most from your discussion boards.

Post a grading rubric

Consider posting a grading rubric to set expectations and guide students to a complete response.

A good discussion begins with a good question

Avoid questions that read like exam questions. Provide students with a debate prompt. Ask students to express an opinion and back up their position by applying course concepts. Encourage them to practice being critical consumers of information by having them use primary literature to back up their statements.

Allow student-led or peer-driven discussion

We like having the students pose a question at the end of their post to prompt better discussions. Many times the original post reads more like a report and then the replies are “good job” or “I agree” because there is nowhere to go.

Throw out questions like “Can you think of an example of this you have encountered?” or “What about this article stood out to you?” or “Did this make you think about something else that is related but different from this?” If you ask your students to provide “substantive responses,” be specific about what “substantive” means.

Require that students respond to classmates

Many faculty require at least three classmate responses, and additionally, ask a question of their classmate based on the posted response. You might suggest a minimum word count for both posts and responses (students frequently ask for this).

Some discussion boards (this can depend on the Learning Management System) have the ability to hide other students’ responses until they, themselves, have responded. We like to have opinion questions in this format so that a student’s response isn’t colored by what has already been written.

Set regular deadlines

You might want to have a set day to submit a main post and another set day to submit peer responses. For example, the main post could be due on Wednesdays and the peer replies due on Fridays. This regular schedule helps students organize their time and remember their due dates.

Consider “outside the box” ways for students to deliver content

In addition to written text, you can allow students to respond to discussion prompts with PowerPoint presentations, YouTube videos, and concept maps. Show sample responses from prior semesters that “successful” students shared.

Add different forums for different purposes

A Cyber cafe

Cyber cafe gives students an opportunity to ask each other questions about the course and concepts, as well as seek support and interaction with their peers. Keep this forum separate from the content and teacher-created prompt discussions. But be sure to still check on this forum and ensure the students are following the netiquette guidelines for all written communication that you have posted.

The Water Cooler

The Water cooler allows students a safe place to discuss anything not related to the course. This allows you to get to know your students’ personalities within an online environment even though you aren’t spending time with them in a classroom.

“Ask the Instructor”

“Ask the Instructor” gives students the ability to post questions about the class or course content that you answer. This allows all students to see the same answer instead of getting the same question via email from multiple students.

Enforce rules of netiquette

Finally — don’t forget to remind students of “netiquette” right up front. For some ideas of what guidelines to set, see our blog post on Netiquette for Students.

Remember, many students dread discussion boards. It is just another thing they have to do; it might feel like busy work. They may think nobody cares about their opinion. Give good feedback, encouragement, and appreciation for contributing, even if the contributions need to be improved.

We hope these tips will help you get the most out of your discussion boards, leading to an engaging and interactive online experience.

About the authors

Pearson Faculty Advisors are a team of 10 North America Pearson employees who are all former educators committed to consulting on the best practices and implementation of our MyLab/Mastering/Revel products in order to help users get the most out of their digital experience. Many continue to teach part time to stay connected to students and education.