Justin Robertson, City University of Hong Kong
Key Statement: Discussion boards serve as platforms for students to practice active learning by sharing arguments, ideas, and sources of information. Discussion boards are a training ground for students to develop their ability to participate in intellectual conversations online.
Developing the habit of regular writing is an important way to work through ideas, both inside and outside the classroom. Some educators are, therefore, turning more often to smaller writing assignments in their courses. There is disagreement over one possible addition to courses: discussion boards. Critics contend that students are ill-equipped to properly critique and build on other student posts, leading to shallow engagement on discussion boards (Koblic, 2020; Mintz, 2020). In this post, I argue that discussion boards serve as platforms for students to practice active learning by sharing arguments, ideas, and sources of information. I also contend that discussion boards are a training ground for students to develop their ability to participate in intellectual conversations online. This contrasts with the typical experience on social media: “We either get into hostile and mostly pointless arguments, or do everything we can to avoid arguing at all” (Leslie, 2021, para. 11). Discussion boards offer a medium for students to experience more positive online interactions, hopefully providing lessons that can be applied in their own lives. By following the discussion board model presented in this article, students can:
learn to express themselves succinctly;
gain a better grasp of course content;
form closer connections with their classmates;
engage with the readings and lectures during the beginning of the course;
recognize that friendly agreements and disagreements are a large part of social life and often bring ideas more clearly into focus; and
discover new research interests that can be pursued in major assignments or other courses.
The Discussion Board Model in Practice
In discussion boards in my courses, students adopt one mode each week. They either deliver an original post or offer feedback on their classmates’ ideas. I divide the class into two groups. The first group begins as the posting group, and the second group begins as the commenting group. Their roles alternate in subsequent weeks. I post a framing question after the lecture and allow 3.5 days for the first group of students to upload posts, followed by 3.5 days for the other group to make comments. Posts are 200 to 300 words, while the two required comments should each be 100–200 words. Students are asked to list their word count, and I explain that no post over the word count will be graded. Comments are not restricted to the post itself; challenging, supporting or building on another student’s comment to the post is encouraged.
Photo credit, Nick Morrison, Unsplash.
Some instructors favor a more flexible discussion board model. Students might be free to start a thread or comment on other posts as long as their contributions meet a certain weekly word threshold. Alternatively, they might be asked to prepare one post and two comments per weekly discussion board. Smith (2015) worries that students who post near the deadline are disadvantaged, as a large proportion of students will have already completed their weekly contributions, resulting in less student interaction with these later posts. My system prevents this outcome, as comments can only be made once the posting deadline for each week has passed.
I believe that limiting discussion boards to 5 weeks maximizes their impact and avoids fatigue associated with boards nearly every week in a semester. One solution to the odd number of weeks is to build students’ confidence by rotating posting and commenting during the first 4 weeks and then implementing a different model for the final discussion board.
In the fifth and final board/week, I ask students to each contribute one post and one comment, with the first half of the week devoted to posts and the second half reserved for comments. For the post, students are responsible for identifying an interesting hypothesis advanced by a classmate in the first four weeks and proposing a way of testing that hypothesis. The comment then builds on or questions the proposed empirical test presented by a classmate.
Instructors must also decide on the extent to which they engage with the discussion board. There are two distinct positions. Darby (2020) asks, “Would you announce a discussion in your brick-and-mortar classroom, and then walk out the door? If not, don’t do it online” (para. 6). In this school of thought, instructors should be active participants on discussion boards. A student echoes Darby when she writes:
Get in there, instructors. Post. Respond. Even if it is a sentence or two.
Openly clarify when people are getting things wrong. In my experience,
just posting at peers feels a little futile and it feels great to get a response
from the instructor. (Koblic, 2020, para. 9)
Blackmon (2012) takes the opposing stance, counseling instructors to “intentionally minimize their social presence in online forums (p. 231), because students need room to develop their ideas. Smith (2015) concurs, arguing that deeper student learning is more likely when the instructor steps back from the discussion board. A middle ground is possible. Throughout the week, my discussion boards are a student-led space, but I conclude each board by posting a synthesis demonstrating that I have closely followed the discussion. This post opens up new avenues and recommends additional learning resources.
While a summary post from the instructor formally concludes the discussion board for the week, students are aware that the material will continue to be drawn upon in the course. I might present case studies, organize student debates, poll the class on positions taken by students, and formulate essay or exam questions based on challenging or insightful statements. I also return to my notes throughout the semester to look for relevant points raised by students that can be incorporated into current material.
Trudeau (2005) proposes that discussion boards have the highest value when students use them before class. To achieve this effect, instructors could pair post-class discussion boards with a short pre-class activity to elicit questions. I often employ what I call a “five points before class” exercise wherein students must post five questions and comments related to the forthcoming class once during the semester. The resulting material provides the instructor with subjects of common interest, areas of confusion, and issues that can be examined in more depth during the lecture. The sequence flows from the five points before class, to the class itself, and then to a discussion board where themes are explored in greater detail. There are other modifications that instructors could also consider. The instructor might host a practice discussion board session (Smith, 2015). The instructor might also (as discussed by Knoles in Lang, 2008) evaluate only the three discussion board posts that each student feels best to encapsulate their contributions. From my perspective, practice sessions seem unnecessary at the postsecondary level and my targeted discussion board template avoids the need to run semester-long discussion boards, with students selecting only snapshots of their work to be graded.
The discussion board template that I have outlined is based upon the belief that commenting is an active learning skill that requires training, beginning as early as the first year in postsecondary education. Advanced commenting skills, developed through this and other exercises at the institution, will be broadly used in the personal and professional lives of these graduates.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of discussion boards that strictly separate posting and commenting responsibilities compared to the more conventional discussion board model in which these roles are combined each week?
What is the “right” number of discussion boards in a course?
Should instructors actively participate in discussion boards or limit their contribution to a weekly synthesis?
Blackmon, S. J. (2012) Outcomes of chat and discussion board use in online
learning: A research synthesis. Journal of Educators Online, 9(2), 1–19.
Darby, F. (2020, August 24) .The secret weapon of good online teaching:
Discussion forums. The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Koblic, R. (2020, February 25). Discussion boards suck. LinkedIn.
Lang, J. M. (2008) On course: A week-by-week guide to your first semester of
college teaching. Harvard University Press.
Leslie, I. (2021, February 16). How to have better arguments online. The Guardian.
Mintz, S. (2020, February 20). Beyond the discussion board [Blog post]. Inside
Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/higher-ed-
Smith, D. N. (2015). Effectively using discussion boards to engage students in
introductory leadership courses. Journal of Leadership Education, 14(2), 229–
Trudeau, R. H. (2005). Get them to read, get them to talk: Using discussion forums
to enhance student learning. Journal of Political Science Education, 1(3), 289–