This page has been written in collaboration with Dr Kelly Sisson.
Discussion boards provide a simple platform for students to critique, reflect, synthesise knowledge, and build a learning community with their peers and tutors. As such, they can provide efficient and powerful asynchronous learning opportunities for students.
- Monitoring engagement – Engagement with discussion boards is an easy way to recognise participation within the module.
- Assess level of understanding – Students’ responses to theoretical, conceptual or reflective questions will give an indication of their progress and understanding, and allow the opportunity to provide feedback.
- Build and maintain the learning community – Discussion boards provide the opportunity for social learning in an asynchronous way and provides a sense of connection to the group and tutors to reduce feelings of isolation when learning online.
Below we have some ideas relating to discussion boards that can help develop discussion activities online to foster engagement and interactivity.
To use discussion board activities on your module successfully, you should; choose a topic/task that suits the asynchronous discussion format, take action to engage the students, and manage your own workload.
Teaching activities that work well with discussion boards:
- Conceptual understanding tasks: If you are introducing new theories or concepts to students, identifying a chapter in a textbook for them to read independently is a good start.
To assess students’ understanding you can ask a series of questions or, if there is more than one element, ask them to pick one and explain it/summarise it for their peers. Try switching between letting students chose their focus and directing them to specific elements of task.
- Critical evaluation tasks: Give students a research article that relates to the topic of the week and ask them to read and critically evaluate it. You can create three threads on the discussion board for areas of critique; (1) “What are the strengths of this paper?” (2) “What are the weaknesses of this paper?” (3) “What are the key findings and could they be applied to your area of practice?” Students learn from the responses of their peers and together can produce a detailed examination of the paper.
- Application of theory to practice: When trying to engage students with theory, try using reflective tasks to encourage the students to apply the theory to their own practice, for example, ask students to evaluate how effective their practice is in relation to best practice and then share with the group what they would like to change and why. This works equally well with case studies as the practice to be examined.
- Break them in gently – The first task you ask students to complete can be unrelated to the content of the module, or at least something quite light-hearted. Any ideas around ice breakers online can be adapted to work on discussion boards. As well as helping to break the virtual ice, this type of activity also allows learners to practice using the technology before the are asked to submit ‘real’ work promoting digital confidence.
- Clear instructions are key – Clear and simple structures and easy to follow instructions are key to engagement. In the online space students need to know exactly what to do as you won’t be there to help them. Tell students explicitly whether you want them to start a new thread or contribute to an existing one; what they should call it; roughly how long it should be, and if you want them to comment on other students work etc. For example; “Add your own post and comment on the work of at least two other students.”
- Be present – This is probably the most important aspect. If you are not regularly visible in the online space your students won’t be either. You cannot simply set a discussion board up and expect the students to use it and sustain a conversation, you need to facilitate it in the same way that you do a group discussion. If you can, go first. If the task requires reflection on practice for example, add your reflection at the start so that the students can see you are invested in the task and to give them something to model their initial posts on.
- Label things clearly – Students don’t always recognise the Blackboard icon for a discussion board, so if you are embedding on in your weekly materials label it as “Discussion board: task two” for example. Repeat the instructions in each of the text boxes so that they are visible at each stage.
- Be clear about your expectations – Explain how, why and when students need to participate and keep track of who does and who doesn’t. Be active and follow up with students that do not participate from the beginning of the module early on to find out why, the longer you leave it the bigger the problem becomes and other students do notice!
When students begin to engage with the discussion boards the amount of posts you need to respond to, even in a small cohort can become overwhelming very quickly, do not underestimate the time this will take you.
Here are some tips for managing your own workload.
- If you are planning a task that has ‘answers’, make sure you do the task and know what the answers are as you set it. This will save time when responding to student posts.
If the task doesn’t have a defined answer, write a model answer and have this ready to post.
- Tell the students when you will be checking and then block out time in your diary to do this. Dipping in and out on a daily basis will take more time. Try checking once after three days, add some comments, and then go back a week after setting the task.
- For large cohorts, try selecting a peer moderator. This student can help you by replying to the posts of their class mates. If this role rotates it means no-one becomes overloaded.
- If there are a large number of posts and you don’t have time to respond individually to them all, read them, make a note of the key points students are making and then write (or record a video) a summary and share it with your group. This may feel less personal on an individual basis, but if you prepare it carefully and call-out contributions for comment or expansion, students will see that you have engaged with their posts and are actively responding to the whole group.
This technique is also useful to clarify any areas of misunderstanding or to share further resources as students often will only read the feedback on their own post.
“The Academic Professional Apprenticeship (APA) programme is delivered using a blended learning strategy. Half of the learning takes place in the classroom (physical or virtual) and the other half is delivered using Blackboard. For these weeks where I do not have direct contact with my apprentices.
Without doubt the element of the APA learners enjoy most is meeting and learning from their peers. Discussion boards provide a way to enable this on weeks where we are not together in the virtual or physical classroom. It also provides a sense of connection to the tutor and the group as online learning can be isolating.”