Online discussion boards present unique opportunities for dynamic and interactive online instruction, yet come with their own set of distinct challenges. On the one hand, a successful discussion activity can produce engaging, accessible social learning on important course topics and allow learners to practice critical thinking and discipline-specific communication norms. On the other hand, instructors can run into a host of difficulties, running the gamut from confused or disengaged students to inappropriate or even hostile posts.
Instructors can pre-empt many discussion-related issues by (1) taking steps in order to build a learning community around your discussion boards and (2) providing clear guidance in both the structure and facilitation of your discussion board in order to foster meaningful participation. The next sections explore these preemptive solutions in more depth, first by offering ideas on how to build a learning community and then providing structure to set your discussions up for success.
Of course, things can go awry even in well-prepared discussions. To that end, “discussion emergency” resources and strategies are available at the conclusion of this page. If you are interested in additional support or would like to speak with an instructional designer, contact us at email@example.com.
Building a Learning Community
Take steps to build a positive and inclusive learning community to stop student participation issues before they start. Creating an environment that encourages respectful and meaningful interactions among students can enhance the quality of discussions and promote a more engaging and effective learning experience.
By establishing clear guidelines for respectful, constructive, and discipline-appropriate communication, students are set up to develop better communication skills, critical thinking abilities, and a deeper understanding of the subject matter. Implementing the following strategies will promote a supportive learning community that can lead to more productive discussions.
Guidelines for Participation
Anecdotal teacher narratives and peer-reviewed research (e.g., Peterson et al., 2018) indicate that it is more challenging to build a cooperative learning community in online asynchronous environments than in online synchronous or in-person environments. A crucial component of mitigating this challenge is to establish clear guidelines for participation in online asynchronous discussions (Walther, 2009). Such guidelines should include standards for:
- Ethical interaction (consider including a netiquette statement as part of your syllabus).
- The quality of post and responses based on the discipline-specific norms of your course (e.g., professional communication standards for business courses, standards of scientific inquiry in STEM courses, etc.) (Middendorf & Pace, 2004).
- The quantity of posts and responses.
- The timeliness of posts and responses.
Providing learners with clear expectations can develop your connection with students and develop a safe, cooperative environment for their interaction with one another. It can also help make sure that what and how students post meets course expectations (e.g., in a debate discussion, students provide evidence for a claim and cite sources using discipline-appropriate style).
In addition to establishing the norms to guide discussions, you should also model your expectations. This can include providing previous discussions that were successful and offering details about how they were successful (and how they might be improved). More importantly, modeling involves demonstrating ethical, engaged posts and responses in a timely manner when communicating with your students. This should happen in discussion posts as well as in other feedback that you provide throughout the course (Middendorf & Pace, 2004).
Finally, to establish a cooperative learning community, start early. Offering low- (or no-risk) introductory discussions to open a course is an excellent way to discuss norms, model communication behaviors, and, most importantly, to allow everyone in the learning community to learn something about each other. Discussions don’t always need to be about course content. Sometimes discussions should be about establishing trust, cooperation, and reciprocity (Walther, 2009).
As you mix in the different types of discussions (see below), we encourage you to add these low- to no-risk discussions with the sole or primary purpose of (re)establishing trust, cooperation, and reciprocity. In Walther’s (2009) study of online group communication, he found “the most trusting and high-performing teams were sociable, exchanged intensely frequent messages, showed interest in other members’ responses, showed initiative, provided substantive feedback to one another, and notified others of their expected participation periods or absences” (p. 233). In a course context, this requires variety in the types of discussion and clarity about norms and expectations.
Provide Structure and Facilitation to Foster Meaningful Discussion
Another challenge often observed in discussion forums is a lack of depth, focus, or relevance in student posts. Despite participating, learners struggle to produce meaningful contributions that align with the course or activity.
To address this issue, communicate clearly from the beginning about the structure of the discussion activity and provide intentional facilitation throughout to promote more meaningful conversations. By offering clear guidelines, instructors can help students engage in thoughtful and relevant discussions.
Clear Discussion Structure
Even if students feel connected to their learning community and are excited and comfortable engaging their peers in course discussions, those discussions may feel superficial or discontinuous from the rest of the course without clear instructions structuring the discussion. Providing clarity is not only about how (and how much) students should communicate in each forum. In order to set your learners up for success, make sure to provide clear instructions on the purpose, schedule, format, and evaluation criteria of your discussion.
A clear statement of your discussion’s purpose will explain why you are having learners engage in the activity and what they will achieve by participating fully. Explain to your learners how this discussion fits into the broader course: how the subject matter of this discussion relates to other course materials and how participating in it helps them work towards course learning outcomes.
Given the asynchronous nature of most online discussion boards, providing a clear and consistent timeline for posting can be critical to make sure students are responsive and engaged. If you ask students to respond to both an instructor-provided prompt and other peers’ posts, then provide due dates for both. Additionally, if you have multiple discussion activities throughout your course, it’s helpful to have a consistent schedule across all your forums. One more piece of advice – set your due dates and times during a period when you're available to provide support (tech or otherwise) to students.
With your discussion’s purpose in mind, select an appropriate format. Different types of prompts invite different types of conversations. Consider the different strengths of the following discussion prompt types explored by Bradley et al. (2008). Whatever format you choose, be sure to clearly communicate that format to your learners.
Definition: Ask learners to interpret or analyze a specific aspect or section of a provided reading or resource.
Direct Link prompts are primarily relevant if you want learners to work toward learning outcomes focused on developing foundational knowledge and understanding (describing, summarizing, explaining, or interpreting claims, concepts, etc.). Discussion of this type tends to invite more student-instructor responses and less student-student responses, relative to other format.
- In the assigned excerpts of Mind: A Brief Introduction (specifically pg. 62-64), Searle introduces a thought-experiment he calls “The Chinese Room.” What does Searle claim this thought-experiment shows us? Do you think he’s right?
- Review the HTML code sample for a show/hide collapsible box provided earlier. Do you think this element will work correctly? If you believe the code is correct, explain one feature you might add and how you might add it. If you believe the code won’t work, explain what the error is.
Definition: Ask learners to integrate a specific aspect or section of a provided reading or resources with other course materials (or course concepts/themes more broadly).
Course Link prompts are great for working toward learning outcomes focused on developing higher-order thinking (comparing, reframing, or evaluating claims, concepts, etc.). This type of discussion can encourage more student-to-student responses as well.
- In the assigned excerpts of Mind: A Brief Introduction (specifically pg. 62-64), Searle introduces a thought-experiment he calls “The Chinese Room.” How does this thought-experiment connect to the idea of “Strong AI” discussed in the last module? Given this thought experiment, do you believe Strong AI is possible?
- Over the last few weeks, we have explored a variety of management styles and techniques that can be used in a variety of workplaces. In your post, find and share a specific job posting or position that you would be interested in applying to after graduation. Then, identify two or more skills or items of knowledge you think would be helpful in that job, and explain how they would apply.
Definition: Ask learners to generate ideas or solutions in response to a problem, question, or situation.
Brainstorm prompts are an excellent option for learning outcomes focused on developing higher-order thinking (creating, modifying, or synthesizing responses, critiques, further questions, and more). If you ask learners to generate questions, worries, or critiques, you can even turn-around and use these responses as the basis for later discussion prompts.
- With this week’s readings in mind, what questions or concerns do you have about (weak or strong) AI? Share at least 3 questions or concerns you have.
- Over the past several modules, you have learned about the theory of relativity and the theory of quantum mechanics. While we have focused on learning some of the mathematical formulations of these theories, these theories are meant to model and predict the world around us. Provide at least two examples of either relativity or quantum mechanics in action that you might experience (or have experienced) in your life, and explain that phenomenon through the lens of the relevant theory. What do the physical theories tell us is happening?
Definition: Present an issue with 2-4 potential lines responses, then ask learners to select a line of response and justify it.
While Limited Focal prompts are not especially effective at working toward learning outcomes focused on developing higher-order thinking (specifically compared to Course Link and Brainstorm prompts), they do encourage a high degree of both student-instructor and student-student responses.
- Of the theories of the mind we have considered thus far (Substance Dualism, Behavioralism, Identity Theory, and Functionalism) which do you find the most plausible? Identify one of the considered theories, and either provide at least two reasons to think your selected theory is a successful account of the mind or consider and rebut at least one common objection to your selected theory.
- Consider the two articles we have read this week on Pride and Prejudice’s Mr. Darcy. In Cherry Potter’s piece, you saw Mr. Darcy described as “the epitome of the dominant patriarchal male,” but, in Monica Alvarez’s piece, she argues that “Austen firmly anchors Darcy’s masculinity in female needs and desires.” Which interpretation of the character is more accurate, and why?
Definition: Present an open-ended issue (no pre-provided lines of response), then ask learners to suggest a line of response and justify it.
Open Focal prompts are excellent for generating many, thorough initial responses to the prompt, though these responses may focus more on description and explanation (as opposed to analysis, evaluation, or synthesis).
- Is functionalism successful as a theory of the mind? Provide either two reasons in defense of functionalism or raise an objection against it.
- Consider films from the Left and Right Banks of the French New Wave watched this week. Discuss the aesthetic and stylistic merits of either “Bank.” Feel free to express a preference but focus on aesthetics and style.
With your discussion purpose prompt format in mind, determine how you’d like learners to respond to you and to each other. Traditionally, forum posts involve written responses to written questions. This can be perfectly appropriate, especially if you aim to have learners work on writing skills. However, this isn’t your only option. If you’d like learners to practice other modes of discussion, or just want to mix things up to keep learners engaged, consider these alternative methods using UM System supported technologies:
- Have learners embed audio or video recordings in a Canvas discussion board using Panopto.
Helpful for: language, public speaking.
- Have learners create multimedia responses and audio or video comments to peers using VoiceThread.
Helpful for: communications, art, media, history.
- Have students collaboratively create and respond to one another’s annotations on course materials using Hypothesis.
Helpful for: information literacy, STEM, journalism.
- If your course has a high enrollment, consider using Canvas group discussions to let learners discuss in smaller, more manageable groups.
Regardless of your chosen prompt format, clearly communicate your expectations for post content. If your discussions are graded (and they don’t necessarily need to be), then you should also provide clarity about how you will distribute points. Point totals and point distributions may need to vary depending on the type of discussion, so provide concrete details about how points will be distributed in each discussion (or, at least, each type of discussion).
Further, when assigning points, offer feedback to students about what they did well and how they can improve the quality, quantity, or timeliness of their posts and responses. To that end, consider creating and using a discussion rubric:
- Rubrics clearly and succinctly state discussion expectations.
- Rubrics can streamline grading, especially if you add the rubric directly to your Canvas discussion assignment.
- Students can provide learners a firm, more “objective” basis for self- and peer-assessment.
You might also explore the following discussion board rubric resources:
- Create Discussion Rubrics
- Sample Online Discussions Rubric
- Assessing Student Participation in Online Discussions
- Critical Thinking Criteria for Evaluating Online Discussion
As you think through the format of your discussion, think through your own participation as the instructor or facilitator. Fortunately for both your time and sanity, you do not need to respond to every learners’ questions and be omnipresent in your discussion boards in order to have an effective discussion.
Research tells us that when it comes to instructor involvement in online discussions, less can be more. “[F]requent posting by instructors to discussion forums did not lead to more student postings on average, and the more the instructors posted, the shorter were the discussion threads on average” (Maddison & Mazzolini, 2003; see also, Lowenthal & Dunlap, 2020). While students almost always appreciate and rely on instructor guidance and feedback in their discussions, providing more restrained, intermittent reinforcement or clarification rather than regular interventions in discussions can help encourage students to be more self-directed and collaborative learners.
Consider waiting a few days before responding to students directly (unless there is an inappropriate post or other issue that requires immediate intervention) and instead dedicate that time to scanning students’ posts and taking notes on participation. The delayed response and observation will allow you to observe emergent trends in responses or common points of confusion, and respond to those in class-wide announcements or wrap-up discussion posts (rather than responding individually). Your observation and note-taking can also provide a basis for providing students with personalized feedback on their contributions or, if the course grades the discussion or participation generally, determining relevant points.
Discussion Emergency Plan
While a strong learning community, clear structure, and purposeful facilitation can provide the foundation for rewarding, engaging class discussion, there are still times when your discussion may take a challenging – and even inappropriate – turn.
Navigating Difficult Topics and Complicating Conflict
Often, the most meaningful and fruitful discussions can also be the most thorny – especially when topics connect to ethics, politics, or identity. Stark differences of opinions can emerge in such discussions. And when a discussion encourages these kinds of complex, significant topics, confronting these differences can feel especially fraught.
In such circumstances, it is important to avoid what Haidt and Mehl have called the trap of binary thinking.
Complex issues, such as immigration or climate change, have collapsed into superficial battles between good and evil, with no room for nuance or common ground. Group identities and social-media pressures guide students to the “correct” side of each issue. Then comes the zero-sum thinking: Anyone who disagrees is seen as an enemy, rather than a fellow student with whom, and from whom, you might learn (Haidt & Mehl, 2022).
Instead of trying to avoid potentially controversial issues altogether, or allowing complex disagreements to be boiled down into binary, winner-take-all conflicts, Haidt and Mehl (2022) urge fostering constructive dialogues where learners are encouraged to actively consider perspectives they might not hold (and, indeed, may genuinely disagree with) while still holding on to and working to articulate their own perspectives.
As noted previously, clearly communicating and modeling discussion norms and expectations is key for any discussion, but it can be especially critical when trying to foster constructive discussion around important and potentially controversial topics. Moral and political philosopher Ronni Gura Sadovsky recommends establishing the following norms of “Respect and Inclusiveness” (2019). These can help promote productive discussion even on difficult topics, while ensuring that students feel comfortable even as they navigate complicated and potentially vulnerable conversations:
- “Engage positions, not people.” Focus discussion (both positive and critical) on particular claims, ideas, or theories, and not on the individuals expressing them.
- “Assume best intentions.” Assume everyone in the immediate discussion is acting in good faith. If the discussion involves considering the views of individuals not in the immediate discussion (e.g., scholars, scientists, artists, politicians, media personalities, etc.), start with the assumption of good faith but be willing to critically discuss whether or not that is the case.
- “Humor: not at others’ expense.” Jokes and laughing are welcome in discussion, especially when navigating difficult topics. However, these jokes should not be at the expense of anyone (especially those in the discussion or otherwise relevant to the discussion).
- “Step up, step back.” Ask students (and yourself as the instructor) to be thoughtful of the space they are taking in the discussion and strive to make sure that everyone (including themselves) has a chance to be heard. If they feel they talk (or post) often, encourage them to wait some time before responding and give others a chance to respond first. If they feel they talk (or post) rarely, encourage them to respond more frequently.
Mandatory Reporting (Title IX, Honor Code, etc.)
In rare instances, an inappropriate discussion post or response may rise to the level of discrimination or harassment. If so, course instructors are mandatory reporters, and formal steps need to be taken if these types of situations arise. You can find reporting policies and resources for both the UM System and your specific campus on the UM System Reporting Incidents page.
You should also consider academic integrity, including how academic integrity relates to Artificial Intelligence (e.g., ChatGPT). This is a growing area of concern for all types of writing, and a previous blog post offers tips that can help you navigate this new technological terrain.
Supporting Student Mental Health and Well-Being
If students’ participation in course activities, including online discussion boards, undergoes a sudden change, is disruptive to the course, disrespectful of peers, or results in failing grades, some degree of instructor intervention needs to be considered. As an instructor, you should not feel as if you must solve the student's problems or counsel them. However, it is your responsibility to report their behavior to someone who can provide them with resources to find help for themselves.
Depending on the nature of the concern, an instructor may choose from several different options:
- Each campus in the system uses an Early Alert System. This system allows you to flag a student and alert their academic adviser:
- Instructors might consider reaching out to their Academic Chair or Dean to report the behavior and ask for support for themselves and the student.
- Consider providing campus-specific well-being information to the student:
Online discussion boards can be an invaluable tool for engaging students, learning collaboratively, and developing key critical thinking skills. However, they are not without their challenges: in particular, insufficient, ineffective, or inappropriate participation. Instructors can proactively address these issues by building a learning community, providing structure, and utilizing resources and strategies for handling potential emergencies.