Tips for Creating Effective Discussion Boards

In the conversations I’ve been a part of this past week, many instructors have discussed implementing online discussion boards through their LMS as part of their instructional continuity efforts in response to Covid-19, and most I imagine will be doing so for the very first time. I’ve used discussion boards sparingly in the past and when I’ve done so they’ve often proved only marginally successful. Given that many teachers are going to be deploying these for the first time, I saw this as an opportunity to scour the web and collect some best practices to help guide both my own course design and that of my fellow instructors.

What Discussion Boards Promise

There are many reasons that instructors gravitate toward online discussion boards. Students can potentially build rapport among one another through discussion boards, a reason why they are often used for course introductions and rapport building during the early weeks of a course. They also promise engaging peer interaction (ideally) and peer-to-peer learning. Done well, discussion boards can contribute to active learning. Well-developed posts from motivated students can demonstrate what engaged learning looks like and thereby encourage less-motivated students.

Where they Often Go Wrong

If you have had experience with online discussion boards, you’ll have little trouble coming up with a list of drawbacks of your own. Many students report that they find them repetitive and boring. Often times discussion boards will result in minimal interactions between students, not to mention there are typically issues with timing of posts. Most of the time students will wait until the deadline and dump all their posts at the last minute, defeating the entire purpose of having other students respond and discuss via discussion board. Another complaint by students is that discussions often seem like busy work, lacking in clear purpose and direction.

Mistakes that instructors commonly make with designing instruction boards are many. But here are some of the major pitfalls to watch out for.

  • Discussion forums are sometimes used to verify that students completed the readings by asking students to provide the single right answer.
  • Instructors over assign them so that they become busy work.
  • Discussion boards that are designed to demonstrate recall and understanding rarely lead to interactive discussion and debate.
  • Instructors don’t take an active role in the discussion boards. Or, they are too involved and not facilitative enough.

Tips for Success

  1. Determine the purpose for the discussion. Despite how many teachers mistakenly employ them as a reading evaluation check, discussions should not be for summarizing. If you’re asking students to do this, then consider asking them to create a blog instead. Think of the types of discussions that genuinely lead to student interaction such as debate, reflection, and synthesis. Have a clear purpose in mind that connects with learning outcomes of your course or the unit/module and reference Blooms taxonomy.
  2. Allow for personal experience. Design your discussions so that they encourage opinion-based dialogue and draw from prior experience.
  3. Carefully select the question type by drawing together the background experience and the purpose. You may need to refer to specific information, themes or topics they are being exposed to in the course to help design the question and prompt. Develop forum prompts and questions that encourage students to analyze, apply and evaluate information.
  4. Reduce the amount of discussion board posts that you require in your course and provide alternative means of responding. One professor found that by reducing his number of discussion post requirements and asking students to respond with concept maps, Power Points and videos in the earlier part of the semester and then follow up with evaluation discussions of those posts in the later part he was able to have less discussions, yet ones that yielded much greater depth and quality.
  5. Provide clear models for the type of posts and responses you expect. To get beyond the baseless responses of “I agree with you” and “good point” instructors need to provide models of what good posts and responses look like. Consider taking time at the end of the first week of responses to provide whole class feedback in a video or audio recording where you point out a quality post that demonstrates what you are expecting. You might also want to think about using the 3C + Q Model, where students are asked to 1) complement, 2) comment, 3) connect, & 4) question.
  6. The instructor’s role is very important and should be both active and facilitative. One instructor reached out to non-responsive students on email encouraging them to engage in the discussions even if they were generally shy students. Encourage students by occasionally taking the time to engage with the posts and moderating the discussion. Make sure you are still a visible presence inside the discussion board so it doesn’t give off the appearance of busy work.
  7. Have clear expectations and/or grading requirements. Some instructors leave discussion boards rather vague in that they require the discussion posts to “advance the topic.” Others have found it necessary to provide grades for a set number of posts and replies and to have evaluative rubrics that define the quality of those posts and replies. Be sure that you set a clear schedule of when you expect initial posts and when you want students to post replies so that you avoid the last minute posts that leave no time for dialogue and debate. Look closely at your purpose when deciding how you will evaluate your discussion boards. Consider adopting a netiquette to set the parameters of what kind of discussion behavior is appropriate and not appropriate.

Further Resources on this Topic


Published by randyrebman

Randy Rebman is an English language professor at Saint Louis University and naturalist guide with Alaska Wildland Adventures. He completed his Masters in TESL from Northern Arizona University in 2013. His research interests are English for specific purposes, content-based instruction, task-based learning and teaching, educational technology and second language writing. He is currently pursuing a certificate in Elearning from Oregon State University.

3 thoughts on “Tips for Creating Effective Discussion Boards

  1. Hi there! This article could not be written much better! Going through this post reminds
    me of my previous roommate! He continually kept preaching about this.

    I am going to forward this information to him.
    Pretty sure he’s going to have a good read. Many thanks for sharing!

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