Making discussion boards work

Use of discussion boards can bring a whole host of benefits to the learning experience. It can help students develop a number of skills including digital citizenship, writing in the language of a discipline, debating, asynchronous dialogue and critical thinking to name but a few. It is also an opportunity for tutors to give feedback and to get a sense of the level of understanding of a topic within the cohort.

However, discussion boards generally don’t run themselves. They need regular light and watering and a nurturing environment to flourish. Below are eight suggestions for growing your students’ chat into the fruit of critical discussion.Two women and two men dressed causally holding up giant speech bubbles stood in a field.

Use the discussion board right from the start of the module.

Starting the discussions from the word go will set a precedent and send the message that it is an important part of the course. Starting to use it in week 3 or 4 can send the message that it’s an optional extra.

Teach your students Netiquette.

Netiquette refers to the rules of civil discourse and behaviour when communicating online. For many of your students, this might be the first time that they have encountered this type of communication in this sort of environment. They may require some scaffold in relation to acceptable ways to communicate in a professional environment. Not only will this help the level of discourse in the module but supports the development of your students’ digital capabilities and digital citizenship.

Align your discussion activities with the learning objectives.

Students tend to be heavily focused on assessment. By aligning activities with learning objectives, you start conversations that are directly related to the assessment and in doing so you tap into that focus.

Expectation Management

Students should have a clear understanding of exactly what you expect of them. Equally, students need to appreciate what your role is in the discussion and what to expect of you. Don’t just communicate your expectations, make sure that students really understand them.

Have a presence.

Tutor presence on a discussion board is important for a number of reasons. Most obviously you should be acting as the guiding voice, correcting mistakes in understanding and steering conversations in the right direction. If students see that you are part of the discussion, it can encourage them to engage further. However, you should be mindful to not become the validating voice for every conversation. Not only will it wear you out but students should develop some of their own critical thinking to validate each other and themselves. Additionally don’t over contribute. A few short sentences in the right places is often all that’s required.

Split up large cohorts into smaller discussion groups.

Large discussion boards can be daunting and impersonal. They can very easily become a wall of impenetrable threads with one post in each and almost no real discussion. By splitting the cohort into groups it makes it far easier for students to make social connections with each other.

Referring to the discussion board in the classroom.

Referring to online discussions, offline, sends the message to your students that it is a genuine part of the course and taking part is an important activity. The discussion board should not exist in isolation from the face to face elements, it should be complimentary. Using the student’s own contributions to augment the in-class conversation, illustrates how they are contributing to their own learning and adding to the feeling of self-determination which is important to adult learners.

If you are a distance teacher and you run webinars mention contributions there. If you don’t have any form of synchronous activity mention it in your weekly communication to your learners.

Highlight valuable contributions.

Students won’t be able to read every thread so highlighting the best contributions, in a regular digest, can draw students attention to work of their peers that they may have otherwise never seen. This is particularly important if you have a large cohort and split them into smaller groups. When highlighting threads refer to the student or students by name to acknowledge their contributions and to give them credit for their work.

Further Reading

For an in-depth look at making the most of discussions boards take a look at this excellent Guide to Fostering Asynchronous Online Discussion in Higher Education by Irina Verenikina, Pauline Jones and Janine Delahunty, published by Fostering Online Discussion (

You may also be interested in the 3C & Q Model by Jenn Stewart-Mitchell.

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