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Improving Continuous Participation in Discussion Boards

by Karen Nichols

Are your students like some of mine in that they often wait until the last minute to post their discussion board assignments? When that happens, you have more grading to do all at once plus the opportunity for a really great discussion is missed because students are merely trying to complete an assignment before the deadline rather than practice engaged learning.

Tony Birch gives two ideas to help maintain a continuous flow of discussion posts in his article "How to Encourage Continuously Interactive Online Discussions" published in eLearning Industry earlier this year.  In his article, he recommends two techniques to improve the flow of discussion posts.

First, he suggests instilling a sense of social purpose for posting in the discussions.  Your objectives for each discussion should be clear to the students--they should understand why they are being asked to discuss a topic.  They should also be made to realize that their participation (or lack thereof) directly influences the success of the discussion and learning experience.  The students should take ownership of the discussions. To assist them in achieving this requires fairly quick feedback from the instructors which includes suggestions like, "Student X posted an interesting viewpoint on this topic.  Why don't you have a look and discuss your take on it?"  So, rather than giving the general direction of "respond to at least two of your classmates' posts", you are helping to direct students to certain posts.  In that way you can match up some students according to different criteria--a weaker one with a stronger student, two students with similar or different ideas, etc.  This type of feedback can also ensure that everyone has received some response to their post and no one is left out of the discussion.

Another way to discourage last minute or all-at-once posting is to reward students who post early and/or throughout the given time for the discussion board.  The author suggests adding Timeliness into your grading rubric.  Here is the one he uses for a week-long discussion:

Timeliness All posts are after Friday or all posts on a single day First post no later than Wednesday; other posts prior to end of week Posts early: First post no later than Wednesday; at least one other post Friday or before; posts on several days of the week
0 pts 1 pts 2 pts

The author notes that the total number of points is 13 so adding these 2 points affects the grade by 15%.  Explain to the students that they can potentially raise their grade by 15% just by posting on time.  The difference of a whole letter grade can be a significant incentive.

Well, what do you think of these two ideas?  Can they work for you with your discussion boards?  Are you using other techniques with success?  If so, please share!

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