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Teaching Tuesdays: Developing Dynamic Online Discussion Boards

The P3 Collaboratory is pleased to continue “Teaching Tuesdays,” our summer weekly series centered around best practices for remote instruction and teaching effectiveness.

The asynchronous discussion board is one of the most familiar tools in the online classroom. When done well, online discussions can build intellectual community, deepen critical thinking skills, and forge learner-to-learner connections; unfortunately, too many discussion board assignments feel prescriptive and rote to their users. Creating thoughtful discussion prompts as well as clear rubrics for students to follow are keys to unlocking the full potential of this simple but flexible tool.

In any type of discussion board assignment, instructors should avoid posing questions with obvious answers, especially yes/no and true/false binaries. Not only do these kinds of prompts lead to terse and redundant online conversations, they signal to students that discussion boards are “busy work” rather than spaces of real engagement and learning.Always make sure there is room for a real discussion that includes a diversity of viewpoints and variety of valid responses.Sentence completion exercises, open questions, and scenario-based “what-ifs” are all good places to start.To avoid having conversations devolve into hearsay, be sure to ask your students to support their post by citing course materials, personal experiences, or credible sources.For courses that culminate in a research paper or project, discussion boards can also productively serve as a low stakes mechanism for guiding students through the research process. You could engage your class in a digital scavenger hunt for library or scholarly materials, ask that your students fully cite sources in their posts to hone bibliographic skills, or discuss what makes for a strong and interesting thesis statement.

Another way to increase student interest in discussion boards to ask for their help in creating and assessing them. In a small course, especially a graduate- or upper-level one, students can take turns “leading” discussions boards, e.g. devising the prompt and replying to their peer’s responses. In larger courses, an option is to have your students alternate responding to the current week’s discussion topic or suggesting prompts for next board.

Students also tend to respond positively to being given choices re: topic and format. When possible, allow students a choice between 2-3 prompts, which serves to broaden the conversation and allows individuals to answer the question that interests them most. Students may also appreciate a choice of response medium: Does your prompt need to be answered in written form or would a graphic or video response be a welcome addition to the conversation?

Offering your students flexibility empowers them to take ownership of their learning process, but that flexibility must be coupled with transparency and accountability so that students feel continually oriented toward course learning objectives. Instructors who rely on discussion boards to assess participation or conceptual comprehension should develop clearly stratified rubrics that make plain to students what distinguishes an adequate post from an excellent one. Aim to provide descriptive expectations of when a post does not meet, approaches, meets, and exceeds your standards. Some categories within your rubric could include on-time and active participation, the degree to which a student supported his/her claims, and the quality of their contributions to the community learning. Once you have developed a rubric, consider drafting a sample post and having your students score it using your criteria. This exercise serves two purposes: it helps to verify that all students have read the rubric, and it helps them to approach discussion assignments more carefully by seeing them from the borrowed perspective of an instructor.

You can help ensure that students are responding to and learning from each other by stipulating a minimal number of thoughtful replies to others’ posts per discussion assignment. (Hint: A constructive response should contain more than “I agree!”) Be sure to explore the custom options for discussion boards embedded in your chosen LMS (e.g Blackboard or Canvas). There are design features that can allow students immediate or delayed access to their peers’ posts; consider which option is right for your individual boards. And when commenting on students’ posts, instructors should draw connections between related entries and/or guide debate when opinions diverge; this demonstrates presence and mimics the accumulative back and forth of a face-to-face conversation!

Resources and References:

As always, a snapshot of the synchronous Teaching and Learning with Technology (TLT) workshops being offered this coming week (Aug 12- Aug 18). Visit the links to register!

Aug 18, 11am (1.5 hours): “Using the TLT Campus Template to Build Your Course”*

*co-sponsored by the P3*

Don’t forget that TLT also has an extensive learning library of tutorials including a three-part series on “Assessing Discussions and Participation Online.”

Upcoming workshops and events in P3’s SMARTeaching series are viewable here.

Brought to you by the P3 Collaboratory for Pedagogy, Professional Development, and Publicly-Engaged Scholarship at Rutgers University-Newark


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