Making Discussion Boards More Engaging

With the world’s education systems shifting to online instruction as the COVID-19 pandemic continues into a new academic year, teachers need to think carefully about how we can maintain the interactive features we value in face-to-face classes without endangering our students’ health. Most learning management systems (LMSs) have some form of discussion board tool that allows students to post something they have written and reply to their classmates’ posts. Depending on the LMS, these may be simple text boxes where students can only write words, or they may have more functionality and allow students to share links and images as well.

Discussion boards are useful because they make it possible to have asynchronous interaction in an online format. Students can work on their own time but also see their classmates’ ideas and collaborate. With social distancing required in classrooms, this format can be more personal than sitting 6 feet away and shouting through masks during an attempt at face-to-face discussion. Students can also make use of internet resources to support their writing.

What’s Wrong With Discussion Boards?

If discussion boards offer so much value, why do so many students (and many teachers as well) dread discussion assignments?

They Can Be Unlike Real-World Discussions

In a highly engaging webinar hosted by IALLT (Henshaw, 2020), Florencia Henshaw of the University of Illinois pointed out that most discussion board assignments do not actually promote the features that make real-world discussions engaging. Effective discussions should continually advance a conversation, building new ideas; when responding to a classmate, students may acknowledge what was said, add or counter an idea, or ask questions. When we create discussion assignments that require students to write a specific number of words or respond to a certain number of classmates, students often do so because they want credit, Henshaw suggests, not because they actually find the discussion interesting.

They Can Be Tedious and Disconnected

In addition, discussion assignments can become tedious for both students and teachers if the same task is used repeatedly (for example, summarize or quote from an assigned reading and respond in 250 words, then comment on at least two classmates’ posts). Students often wait until the last minute before a post is due, leaving them little time to respond to their classmates’ posts and creating an imbalance in which posts receive replies. Students may not see the connection between what they are writing in the discussion board with other class learning, especially in multiskill classes where the topics of writing are disconnected from the other content.

They Can Be Intimidating

Finally, especially in classes of students with a wide language proficiency or experience range, some students may find discussion board tasks intimidating. I used to use discussion boards in my graduate course about second language writing, a course that included both MA and PhD students, many of whom were nonnative English speakers in their first semester of graduate study. In assigning discussion posts about the readings, I thought the nonnative-English-speaking students would value having time to think and compose their ideas, but when I surveyed students, I found quite the opposite. The word cloud below highlights their feelings about the discussion board assignments. Many said that they felt like each post required them to write a rigorous academic essay, and they felt like they were competing with their classmates over who could write the most insightful post. They didn’t always think they had anything to add in response, either. I dropped the assignment when I taught the class last year.

Word cloud of emotions, with largest being interested, engaged, worried, stressed, embarrassed, and competitive.

Word cloud of graduate students’ feelings about discussion board assignments.

How to Make Discussion Boards More Engaging and Useful

Tips for Making Discussion Boards Better

Rather than cut out discussion board assignments entirely, I encourage you to think about ways to make discussions work better for your students. In online classes, discussion boards can give students a chance to share more of their personalities with classmates, and they can support students to interact even when they are not together at the same time. I’ve found several helpful sources that offer suggestions; check them out for more ideas.

  • Use Strong Prompts: Create discussion prompts that give students a clear reason to respond and that encourage discovery and creativity rather than summarizing a common text (Faye, 2020; Henshaw, 2020). Henshaw points out that initial posts do not have to be longer than the responses; in some of her examples, the initial post is just a photo and the response is much more lengthy.
  • Scaffold: Scaffold the task (Henshaw, 2020) and the response (Lieberman, 2019) so students know what to do in their writing.
  • Be Clear About Expectations: Set realistic expectations (Henshaw, 2020) and establish discussion board norms (Faye, 2020). You may need to retrain students away from old habits if they have taken previous classes where discussion boards were used in less engaging ways (Henshaw, 2020).
  • Simulate Small-Group Discussion: If you have a large class, create smaller groups (4–6 students per group) so that the students can read all the posts and respond carefully (Faye, 2020). This can also encourage greater interaction among group members on the discussion board, building a real back and forth conversation rather than just a set of isolated responses to a post.
  • Be Present and Responsive: As the instructor, be present throughout the task. You do not need to respond in detail to all students’ posts, but do show students you are reading what they write by responding to a few posts each week; you could also bring up a few insightful comments during class to show students how their posts are part of the class content (Faye, 2020). Send private messages to encourage students if it seems like they are feeling intimidated or otherwise not participating as much (Lieberman, 2019).

Great Discussion Board Activities

Here are a few writing-related tasks that offer students a chance to use language and have a bit of fun at the same time:

  • Describe and Guess: Each post describes a fictional family, place, work of art, or travel destination without naming it. Responses guess the name and justify that choice (Henshaw, 2020).
  • Classified Ads or Job Announcements: The initial posts describe a product, service, or job, and the responses are applications or requests for that product (Henshaw, 2020).
  • Shark Tank: Each initial post proposes an innovative business or product, and the responses are reviews of the proposal (Henshaw, 2020). This assignment could also push students into a longer string of exchanges in the response, where the readers ask probing questions of the initial poster, who must defend their product.
  • Video Discussions: Video discussions can be valuable even in a writing class, allowing students to talk through ideas or share their research before they commit to paper. VoiceThread and Flipgrid both support threaded video discussion where students can also share images or slides (Lieberman, 2019).
  • Creative Getting-to-Know-You Prompts: Discussion prompts can also be used for students to get to know each other better, not just at the beginning of a course but throughout the term. I’m taking a great professional development course on online language teaching right now from Michigan State University, and one of the example tasks was to post a photo of the inside of your refrigerator. The initial post should describe what is inside the fridge, and the responses should then speculate about the personality of the original poster, grounded in evidence from the picture. What do you think about me, based on what’s in my fridge?
Photo of large refrigerator with vegetables, beverages, and condiments

What can you say about my personality based on what I have inside my refrigerator?

This is just a small sampling of the ideas that were presented in Henshaw’s (2020) webinar and the other articles. I encourage you to watch the webinar recording to learn more.

Share your own examples in the comments section: What other ways can we make discussion boards more engaging for our students?

References

Faye, S. (2020, July 31). Making the most of discussion boards. Online Writing Instruction. https://owi.ucdavis.edu/news/making-most-discussion-boards

Henshaw, F. (2020, June 24). Are discussion forums really interactive? Ideas for purposeful asynchronous communication [webinar]. International Association for Language Learning Technology (IALLT). https://fltmag.com/webinar-discussion-boards/

Lieberman, M. (2019, March 27). Discussion boards: Valuable? Overused? Discuss. Inside Higher Education. https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/article/2019/03/27/new-approaches-discussion-boards-aim-dynamic-online-learning

 

About Betsy Gilliland

Betsy Gilliland
Betsy Gilliland is an associate professor in the Department of Second Language Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi Mānoa, where she teaches courses on second language writing, teacher research, and qualitative research methods to undergraduate and graduate students. Co-editor of the Journal of Response to Writing, she was chair of the TESOL Second Language Writing Interest Section (2019-2020) and has published in TESOL Journal, Journal of Second Language Writing, and ELT Journal, among others. She was a Fulbright Scholar at the Universidad de Atacama (Chile) in 2018.
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