Discussion Board Best Practices

In online courses, discussion forums provide a place for student-to-student and instructor-to-student interaction. Within discussion forums, students share thoughts and review the ideas of others modeled through collegial, dialogic exchanges. This community is an essential piece of your course. It builds student engagement, persistence, and increases the potential for student success.

Use Your Class Time for Community Building

  • Design Course Consistency. Students build community when they have consistent opportunities to connect with each other. Design your course for these student-to-student moments to happen, especially during your class time when your students are together at the same time.
  • Use Zoom Breakout Rooms. Use Zoom breakout rooms to give your students a chance to talk to each other in smaller groups. This works great for both short and longer discussions or for working together on a problem.

    Learn more about Zoom breakout rooms

Start From Day One

Think about the tone you want your class to take on. Your assignment prompts or announcements should reflect this tone and remain consistent throughout the semester. Create a discussion board for students to introduce themselves and ask your students to participate. Giving your students a way to get to know their classmates is a simple way to make a big positive impact on your course’s community. You can give them a few questions to answer such as:

  • Where they are joining the class from?
  • Their favorite animal or sports team?
  • Why did they choose this course?

Strategies to Promote Learning and Reduce Workload

To help alleviate discussion board burn-out, here are some strategies that can be used to promote student learning while reducing instructor workload:

  • Review Learning Outcomes. The instructor should review course learning outcomes prior to the beginning of the term and tailor discussion content to extend and enrich the material presented in the readings and module content.
  • Post the Initial Response. The instructor should post the initial response to all discussion forums. Interesting resources, insights, and additional questions can be posted to further student learning. This will establish the instructor’s online presence before a student even makes the first post.
  • Create Discussion Questions Beforehand. For each week of the course, the instructor should create and save a series of discussion posts that can be cut and pasted into the forums. These posts should contain instructor thoughts on the topic, links to resources, or scholarship to further engage students in the discussion.
  • Promote Engagement. If students are not participating early in the week in the discussion forum, the instructor should consider posting an additional prompt encouraging students.
  • Additional Resources. YouTube videos, Ted Talks, news articles, etc. should be posted to make the discussions technologically rich, while requiring less typing from the instructor.
  • Respond to Each Student's Initial Post. The instructor should respond to the initial post a student makes. Either ask a question, affirm something the student stated, redirect if the student is off-topic, or provide a link to a resource. Use the student’s name in the response to personalize comments, but then consider some general prompts that can be used no matter what the topic to promote learning.

Developing Discussion Board Questions

Craft 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. 

  • Don't Use Textbook Prompts. 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?
  • 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.
  • Showcase Critical Thinking. 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. 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.

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. 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. 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 Etiquette. 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.
  • Visit the Discussion Frequently. During the week check in and let students know you’re reading and enjoying their conversation. 
  • Summarize the Discussions. Model how to see the big picture by 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. 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.

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. 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.

Further Resources