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A common assignment given in an online class is for students to participate in a discussion forum. Most discussion forums are setup so that students are asked to respond to a prompt and reply to posts from their classmates. Do you want to setup your online discussion forums to encourage substantive discussions among your students?

In a recent Inside Higher Ed blog post, Dr. Steven Mintz (Senior Adviser to the President of Hunter College for Student Success and Strategic Initiatives) writes,

We don’t simply want our students to respond to a question, but, rather to engage with the course material and take part in a genuine dialogue.

In his blog post, he goes on to give strategies for better ways to embed dialogue and interaction into asynchronous online classes. The strategies he suggests are:

Provide Better Prompts – Prompts that involve higher-order thinking skills and require the students to apply, analyze, compare and contrast, critique, evaluate, explain, infer, predict, propose, solve, and synthesize.

Ask Students to Do Something – Ask students to solve a problem, analyze a case study, take part in a debate, adopt a role or relate the topic to a current event.

Raise the Stakes – Ask students to rate individual posts. Nothing focuses the online student’s mind better than a sense that their writing is being evaluated anonymously by their classmates. You can also raise the stakes by limiting the number of students who participate in each discussion and asking the rest of the class to provide feedback on the discussion as a whole (not on individual postings).

Reimagine How Online Conversations Are Displayed – Help students better visualize the discussion by displaying networks of comments or use word clouds to underscore the key issues that have arisen.

Adopt a Different Model – Perhaps it’s a mistake to transpose a mode of communication that works well in face-to-face, synchronous or one-on-one contexts into the asynchronous realm. There are other ways to create a sense of community, promote collaboration and elicit meaningful ideas and debate.

If this has piqued your interest, you should read Dr. Mintz's, Beyond the Discussion Board, blog post.

ICYMI, read my Improve Online Discussions Using ABCs blog post for suggestions on giving feedback that impacts student performance.

If you are new to using discussions in Brightspace, you can find how-to resources for discussion forums on our blog.

Image credit: image by Juraj Varga from Pixabay

A discussion forum is an excellent tool for student engagement. However, you don’t always have to use the question and answer format to engage students in a discussion forum.

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In the Faculty Focus article, “Discussion Board Assignments: Alternatives to the Question-and-Answer Format,” professor Chris Laney gives his take on alternatives for Q&A discussions. Laney, who is professor of history and geography at Berkshire Community College, was having trouble engaging students in discussion forums in his online class and decided to rethink his use of online discussions. Professor Laney thinks of the discussion forum as a place to foster interaction between the students through a variety of means rather than just asking them questions. Specifically, he uses role-playing, debates, and WebQuest to foster interaction between his students.


One example of how Professor Laney used role-play is a discussion forum activity that asks students to do some research on a person living in an urban Roman city in the first century CE. Each student creates a character and writes a diary entry or letter recording what he or she did in the course of a day or a series of days. To perform well in this activity the students need to research a few things about the professions and classes that would have existed during that time. The students end up talking back and forth in character and at no point does Professor Laney actually ask a question.


One example of how Professor Laney uses debates is he had students debate whether democracy in the Middle East would result in better or worse relations with nations in the region. It’s a pretty straightforward assignment; however, when having students debate it’s important to set clear ground rules to keep things cordial and to avoid simplistic arguments.


Professor Laney gives students a less intense discussion forum assignment in weeks when a major assignment is due. Rather than carrying on a discussion over the usual two-week period, he has students do a simple WebQuest and post their findings without having to respond to each other. For example, he may ask students to post an image, video, or music clip from the Romantic Period of art in the 19th century and write a brief description about why it’s considered an example of Romanticism.


In a class of 25 people there may be 75 messages in a week to grade. To keep the discussion forum assignments manageable, Professor Laney asks students to post their messages in a single thread. Having all the messages in a single thread makes it relatively easy to grade. When a discussion forum activity is over, Professor Laney can click on an individual student’s name and at a glance assign a grade.

Are you using an alternative to the Q&A format for discussion forums? If so, we would like to hear about it. Please leave a comment to share your alternative to the Q&A format.

If you are new to using discussions in Brightspace, you can find how-to resources for discussion forums on our blog.

Image credit: Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

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!

by Karen Nichols
A recent edition of Faculty Focus includes an article on successful discussions conducted online. There is after all an art to effective online communication. These considerations include the necessity to communicate with all students in the discussion forum. Personally, I respond to each of my students' original postings, but I do not intrude in subsequent conversations between the students. (I do monitor them however, to ensure that the students are communicating appropriately.)

The Faculty Focus article also describes how you should communicate with your students depending on their individual needs. For example, if a student actively and fully participates in the discussions, you may wish to challenge him/her, while students who express confusion may need more direction and time spent in explaining the goals of the discussion assignments.

Further, try to be open to a variety of responses and lengths. More is not always better so be sure to give shorter postings and unexpected opinions and answers due consideration. Along these lines, there is an art to knowing when to lead the discussions and when to gently guide them along in order for the students to feel comfortable taking the lead themselves and/or expressing their sentiments even if they may differ from those of the instructor.

Last year, Blackboard sponsored a discussion on breathing new life into Discussion Boards:

Do you use online discussions? If so, what are some of your best practices and suggestions?