Robust Discussion Boards Begin with Great Questions

Elsewhere I’ve argued that online discussion boards can be lively, engaging, and deep, involving more students than a typical classroom discussion and prompting more careful thinking and respectful engagement. But how do you get there?

It all begins with the questions you ask.

What your students talk about on discussion board will of course vary according to their expertise as learners, your course content, and your teaching style. But all good discussion begins with a good question–typically (though not necessarily, especially in upper level courses where students can take more leadership in directing the class) from you. And all good questions are genuine and constructivist. That is, they don’t presume an answer but invite students to work together to build answers. (The opposite of this is a question with a single right answer or small range of right answers; in these cases, students quickly begin to play “guess what the professor wants to hear,” which is boring and stifles their thinking.)

Manet’s In the Conservatory, 1879. You can help students who dominate in-class conversations make space for their peers–and help students who may be overpowered by those quick to talk–with questions that demand that everyone apply what they are learning to novel situations and report back to their classmates on their experiences.

Here are some question models that might be helpful:

Interview someone: Interview someone who is not in our class about [topic related to class]. Your interview with them should be just 5-10 minutes. Take notes on it, and make sure that they know that you will be summarizing the conversation with the class and reflecting on it but that you won’t share any identifying details about them. Then, summarize the conversation and reflect on it. [As the professor, you will want to explain what reflect on it means in the context of your course.]

Return to the central question: One of the central questions of this unit is [insert debatable question here]. Ask someone who is of a significantly different demographic group than you [age, gender, race, etc.–perhaps focusing on something important to the class] how they would answer the question. Be sure that they know that you will share this with the class but that you won’t share any identifying information about them. Summarize their answer, then reflect on it. Is it how you would answer this question? What factors do you think led them to offering this answer?

Find a source: Locate a source that hasn’t been assigned this week but that is related to the topic of this unit. Share it here, including a [your disciplinary style] citation to it. In 25-50 words, summarize it. Then explain how it illustrates a concept from this unit.

Create a study aid: Identify something significant from this unit that you think everyone who has mastered this material should know. Create a study aid of some kind that will help others learn it. While you may select the same concept, definition, fact, etc. as a peer, you may not produce the same kind of study aid to assist others in learning it, so be sure to review what others have already posted before you share yours.(You may, before the due date, indicate concept, definition, fact, etc. you plan to address and what kind of study aid you will produce so that no one else creates something similar before you are able to finish the one you are creating.)

Material or Digital Culture: Find an object [or digital image] that relates to what we’ve learned in class this week. Share a picture of it in your discussion board post, along with a description of the physical characteristics of the object (color, shape, size, material, etc.) in 10-50 words. Explain how it relates to class. [This prompt is especially effective if you, as the professor, are more specific. For example: This week we focused on gender in marketing. Find one object that you or someone you know already owns that is marketed using such techniques and share a photo of it… ]

Bring It Back to Class: In this prompt, you direct students to find something and report back on it to class: a website about a topic, a law or public policy, the mission statement of a nonprofit organization, a song… anything that gets them applying what they’ve learned to your class.

Report on Your Progress: Tell us what you accomplished on your major project for the class this week. [Alternatively, this is where you could require them to report on specific tasks related to the final project. This could mean offering their tentative thesis, posting an outline for other students to review, sharing the first draft of their abstract, or answering questions about their final project topic that will prepare them to complete it. For example in my Soc of Disasters class, each week students apply the concepts we learn–defining a disaster, risk, crisis, resilience, and recovery–to the disaster they are focusing on for their final paper. This means they are thinking about their unique topic using the same frame as their peers in the discussion board.]

The goal is to generate questions that produce unique answers, ones that reflect students’ new efforts to learn rather than simply report what they have already learned elsewhere in the class. When you ask them to tell a story–about an interview or a conversation or an object–they are doing work beyond the discussion board (which is good) and also sharing a story that no one else can tell. This is knowledge production, not just recitation.

Some more ideas about the structure of discussion boards:

  • In a very large class, you still may find that an open-ended question begins to produce similar answers because you have so many students. If that is the case, consider organizing students into smaller discussion board groups, which you can do in your LMS.
  • Set a word count range, only because this helps set an expectation for thorough engagement. I aim for 200-400 words of original posts each week in a 200-300 level class, plus 200-400 words of responses to peers.
  • Instruct students to include descriptions of any images they include so that students with visual impairments can fully participate in class.
  • Require that they respond to at least two peers. If you require that they only respond to one, some students will rarely receive responses to their posts. You may also require that they respond to someone who hasn’t yet received a response before they respond to someone who has to help connect everyone in the class.
  • In a F2F class that is suddenly being taught remotely, be sure to set a single due date for all work, including discussion boards. I recommend once-per-week due dates (same day, same time every week) to help students manage their load and give them time to think about their answers.

I hope these tips are handy as you work to foster online discussions. I’d love to hear what works in your own classes as well, so be sure to share in the comments!

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