Students love discussion board–when it’s well-designed.

Do you hate grading discussion board posts? If you do, students probably also hate writing posts there. But it doesn’t have to be this way. When discussion boards are well-designed, they can be places of lively and meaningful conversation (which also means that grading them is like eavesdropping on a great conversation!). Here is what students often report liking about them:

  • They are able to take the time they need to gather their thoughts, unlike in live conversation or chat. 
  • They can review what others have said and find points of connection, making it easier to dialogue with their classmates. 
  • They can track conversations better than in an in-person class, where it may be difficult to see who is speaking or remember their names. 
  • They can share their opinions without having to figure out when is the right time to jump into a conversation.
  • They can share their opinions without feeling worried that their accent or any spoken language disabilities will prevent them from being understood. 

Students and educators share a big complaint about discussion boards, though: it’s hard to make a meaningful contribution! Students are especially frustrated when faculty ask them to do work that isn’t a real discussion (because there is only one right answer) or when the answer is so obvious that only the first person who says it is posting an original answer. Here are some ways you can help:

Use discussion boards to foster discussion, not to assess student writing or content knowledge. This seems like obvious advice, but many of us inadvertently use the discussion forum like a short answer essay question. If the question isn’t debatable or enriched by discussion from diverse perspectives, don’t ask it. 

Ask specific questions with no right or wrong answer.

Ask students to detail and reflect on a personal experience, since no one else can share the same experience. 

Ask students to connect the class to something outside of the class, whether knowledge from another class or an example from history, pop culture, politics, literature, etc. 

Ask students to bring in the experiences of others. Require them to ask someone outside of the class about what they’re learning, then share from that conversation (with permission from their conversation partner).

Require students to find new primary sources for discussion, and don’t allow anyone to post the same. Assign them the task of finding a news article or website about the content you are ready. 

Create smaller discussion groups in your LMS, so students aren’t having to sort through so many posts and so that they can increase their chance of making an original contribution.

Make yourself scarce. Just as you wouldn’t comment on every comment a student makes to their peers in class, you don’t need to comment on everything they say in discussion board. Help them speak to each other, not you, by stepping aside. 

Grade holistically, looking at student contributions in general over time, rather than judging every single post. This way, they feel a little more free to experiment, and they’re writing to each other, not to you, the evaluator. While you want to catch and correct any comment that is inappropriate, you don’t have to comment on every post. Instead, tell students that you will grade posts during certain weeks in the semester, and you’ll be looking for large patterns. 

Teach students to report inappropriate comments. The good news: they’re probably rarer than you think. 

Are your students rocking discussion boards? What do you do to make that happen?

Above, Eduard Frankfort’s 1888 painting A Theological Debate shows three Jewish men at a table with books open before them, engagined in a debate. A fourth stands in the background, reading from a large volume.

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