Suggestions for Encouraging Rich Discussions
Discussion Boards and other forums can create opportunities for students to engage richly with texts and with each other. But fostering deeper critical engagement in the Discussion Boards requires careful structuring and design of the activities.
Structuring Discussion Boards
Focus on your objectives for the Discussion Board: what kind of exchanges do you want to foster between your students? Are they reflecting on their understanding of common class readings? Drawing connections between readings? Commenting on each other's writing?
Remember that developing a richer conversation may take time, so consider allowing at least a few days between the deadlines for initial postings and replies. You may find that it is preferable to have fewer Discussion Boards that develop more slowly--for example, requiring an initial posting one week and then replies to group members the next.
You may also find it helpful to create smaller groups for Discussion Board postings, perhaps assigning each group a specific question or focus. Students can then be asked to reply to each of their group members.
The technology also provides a setting that can make it less tempting for students to echo each other's ideas: you can set-up the Discussion Board so that students must write their own post before being able to see those by classmates. (To do this, check the option for: "Participants must create a thread in order to view other threads in this forum” when you set up the Discussion Board.)
To encourage deeper critical engagement, opt for open-ended questions rather than reiterations of content:
- That is, don’t ask: What is Smith’s main point in “Why Do I Have to Read This Essay Anyway?”
- Instead, you might ask: Which of Smith's arguments did you find most convincing? Why?
Provide clear instructions both for the initial posting AND for replies. Replies might ask students to bring in another text (what would Jones say to these points raised by Smith?) or ask students to respond directly to concerns/questions their classmates have raised in the initial postings. You might also consider asking students to reflect on those replies and what they reveal about their own understanding.
In the instructions, indicate how long the postings and replies should be and what approach you expect students to take. Be explicit about the register and level of formality that you expect from students in your particular Discussion Board. You may also want to model a sample posting and reply.
Encourage students to support each other and develop the conversation by requiring them to reply directly to each other, either as a class, or as part of a smaller group.
Decide how you want to award credit (and do consider doing it in such a way that you do NOT have to individually reply to each posting!) Consider whether a rubric might be helpful or if you would like to find a way to sum up your responses to the Discussion Board through an announcement, posting of your own, video re-cap, or other approach.
Additional Resources on Discussion Prompts
- Cohort-based Discussion Boards from Alex Sibo.
- General Suggestions from Flower Darby.
- Model Prompts from Scott Warnock’s blog on teaching writing online.
- Building Student-Student Interactions from the University of Waterloo.
- Sample Rubrics from the University of Florida.
- Fixing Common Problems with the Online Discussions Doctor by Laura March and Mark Anthoney.
- General Principles for Discussion Boards from Victoria Nesnick.
- Tutorial on Setting up Discussion Board in Blackboard.