Boost Student Engagement by Rethinking Your Online Discussion Board
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Boost Student Engagement by Rethinking Your Online Discussion Board

A badly run discussion board is worse than no board at all. A near empty, abandoned online discussion board sends a message to students, and it’s not a welcoming one. Either run your board right — in a way that encourages and rewards real discussion — or skip the board completely.

That said, there’s a lot of incentive to get it right. Online discussion boards are one of the most effective ways an educator can inject a dose of community into their online course. A lively and thought-provoking board can draw students into a deeper engagement with their peers while strengthening their understanding of course materials.

You may think that the quality of your discussion board depends on student contributions. In reality, what separates a lively discussion board from a dead one is careful planning, clear expectations, and a steady, moderating hand.

Find out the best practices to follow and so you can use a discussion board to enhance, not hurt, your online course.

Understand the Value of a Discussion Board

Just because you have the option of an online discussion board doesn’t mean your course needs one. Before you commit to adding a board, consider how it will enhance the overall curriculum and how you, as an instructor, will use it to strengthen the learning objectives of the course.

Don’t use your board as a mechanism for testing knowledge retention. Essay prompts and exams do this more efficiently. Instead, use your board as an opportunity to enhance the learning process.

How can a discussion board enhance the structure and subject matter of your course? For example, if you’re teaching a course on Shakespeare’s sonnets, a discussion board would be a useful forum for analyzing individual couplets, discussing ambiguities in interpretation, or citing real-world examples of Shakespeare’s influence. These are topics that you might not have time to cover in your lectures or other course materials, but still contribute to a deeper understanding of the material.

Choose Questions That Inspire Discussion

Thoughtful discussion questions are the most important factor in creating an engaging discussion board. Carefully craft questions that give students the opportunity to form opinions and build on each other’s insights.

Too often, instructors post close-ended essay questions on discussion boards. These questions have only one right answer, and once that has been given, there isn’t a lot more to say. This is the quickest way to kill a discussion before it even gets started.

Instead, craft open-ended questions that promote higher-level thinking. Questions that require students to interact with the course material by analyzing information, evaluating opinions, or creating new content based on their knowledge base. For more explicit tips on the exact types of questions that inspire deeper thought and spirited interaction, have a look at our article: How to Write Discussion Questions That Actually Spark Discussions.

Thoughtful follow-up questions will help to keep conversations humming along. Require students to leave responses to each other’s work, not just original postings. Contribute to the discussion yourself and leave thought provoking follow-up comments and questions.

Set Explicit Expectations

Communicate your discussion board expectations to your students. The clearest way to do this is to outline your approach to online discussions in the course syllabus, as well as verbally reviewing with students during the first session. Make sure that students understand how much participation is expected of them, if and how their discussion work will be evaluated, and what constitutes a good quality comment.

If you’re using a rubric to grade comment quality, post it in the syllabus for students to examine. For even greater clarity, post examples of good and poor quality comments.

Students frequently have family and work commitments that can make discussion board participation feel like a burden, instead of an opportunity. Recognize the time commitment and explain your rationale for asking them to participate — how and why you feel that the discussion adds to the learning experience. Provide a few tips on how they can best contribute to the discussion and a baseline amount of time you expect them to budget toward discussion activities


Grade Participation (Or Don’t)

The merits and drawbacks of grading participation have been hotly debated in the education community for years. A lot of the arguments against grading participation (e.g., it penalizes introverts) are negated by the online format, but it’s still a move that should be carefully considered.

Proponents of participation grades argue that when you require students to contribute to discussions, you guarantee your board is active and that all perspectives are heard. Participation is, in itself, a way to absorb and synthesize information, and when you require it, you ensure that all students receive the benefits of active learning.

While a discussion is a valuable learning mechanism, not every online student has the time or inclination to participate wholeheartedly. If you make participation optional, it repositions the discussion, not as an obligation but as an opportunity for willing students to engage more deeply with the material. The discussion itself could theoretically be more interesting and engaging without the boring and rote comments that usually accompany mandated participation.

Of course, if discussion boards aren’t mandatory, there is a risk that everyone declines to participate, and your board sits empty. An in-between technique to encourage engagement without making it a hard and fast requirement is to offer extra credit to those who contribute. Or don’t outright grade comments, but require students to create their own posts, and leave discussion comments as an essential part of finishing each course activity.


If you do decide to grade discussion board activity, recognize that the quality of comments is more important than the quantity. One well-thought-out response is worth more than five brief “I agree” type posts. Create a rubric to help you objectively evaluate content quality.


Moderate with a Steady Hand

It’s not enough to post some questions, sit back and grade participation. It’s the instructor’s responsibility to actively monitor discussion boards, both to foster community and to moderate conflicts.

Students will be more invested if they feel like they know and trust their peers, even if they’ve never met face to face. On the first day of the course, post a welcome thread where students can introduce themselves, discuss their backgrounds and their interest in the course. If it feels appropriate, create an off-topic discussion area where students can converse about non-course-related materials. Don’t forget to contribute yourself, but don’t dominate. These threads are for the students.


Online discussions occasionally strip away the common rules of civility, so content moderation is essential to make sure boards stay polite and on-topic. Keep moderation light: moderating with a heavy hand can reduce student’s engagement and autonomy in the discussion. Strike a balance between letting discussions naturally unfold and keeping an eye out for inflammatory or inappropriate posts.

Provide community guidelines for constructive conversation to set students up for success. Develop a conflict resolution plan to deal with heated discussions (your institution may already have some policies around this that you can adopt). Make it clear that there is zero tolerance for intolerance based on gender, ethnicity, orientation, or religious beliefs.

Take Advantage of the Online Medium

One of the greatest advantages of online teaching is the sheer wealth of potential that the internet provides. Without the issues of time and space, you can engage in all sorts of interesting activities that would never work in a traditional classroom. So, instead of simply posting text-based discussion questions, spice up your threads with novel types of content.

Here are a few ideas:

Guest Threads - Bring in a guest speaker or an expert on some aspect of the course to do an informal Ask Me Anything (AMA) session.

New Media - Let students post relevant YouTube videos, TED Talks, or (fake) news articles to discuss.



Scavenger Hunts - Ask every student to post an article, picture, or video to illustrates a concept or theory.

Group Work - Split students into smaller discussion groups for more intimate conversations.

The possibilities are nearly as endless as the internet is.


Make Your Online Discussion Boards the Heart of Your Course

At their worst, posting in an online discussion board is just another task on a student’s long to-do list. They check in, drop a few sentences, then check back out forever. At their best, online discussion boards can be the heart and soul of the course — the turning point that it revolves around, with other educational materials acting as supplements to the important work of online discussion. The route your course takes is up to you.


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