3 Tips to Help You Get the Most Out of Discussion Boards in an Online Course

Online Discussion Boards
Online Learning
Reading Time: 2 minutes

Elyse Adler is an Assistant Professor of Information Technology


In an online class, the course discussion board often takes the place of the face-to-face discussions you’d normally have in the classroom.

If you’re meeting completely asynchronously, the discussion boards might be students’ only opportunity to interact with each other. If you have any synchronous sessions, the discussion boards are a place to further conversation.

When structuring the discussion boards in my courses, it’s helpful to provide both required, structured forums, as well as a “community center.”

The community center functions as a place where students simply chat with each other. Sometimes students ask questions, collaborate or post requests for thoughts/prayers.

In the community center forum description, I include a statement that explains that I don’t monitor the board on a regular basis. This isn’t a place for students to ask me questions or seek feedback or input from me. I view this as a place for students to talk and interact with their peers.

For my structured forums, I’ve found it extremely important to provide clear and detailed prompts. These forums count as part of their course grade—replacing the points earned for course attendance or participation in a face-to-face course. Therefore, it’s necessary to be as clear with the expectations as you would with any other assignment.

Here are some things I’ve found to be essential in establishing effective discussion boards in my courses:

Have clear due dates/dates for participation.

Each discussion board forum in my course has a detailed prompt and requires each student to provide an initial reply. Students then must respond to at least two of their peers.

I set due dates for all elements of the discussion board assignment. The “reply” due date is set several days after the due date for the initial reply.

Provide clear expectations for length, citations and formatting requirements.

I like to keep my forums conversational. So, I don’t require students to format their posts to any specific academic format.

However, there is a word count requirement for both initial posts and replies. I’ve found students often reply “Great post! Thanks!” and move on if there’s no specific length requirements. By providing some guidelines, it encourages students to think more critically about the discussion topic.

Also, specify for each forum if students are required to cite or reference any outside sources. Whether or not you require this depends on the content and intent of the discussion you hope to develop.

Interact on the discussion board.

It’s important that you, as the instructor, stay involved in the discussions. It can be hard to respond to every student or have a unique reply to each posting. This is especially true if students are replying to a specific prompt.

However, there are a few things you can do to stay active and involved! I make a point to respond to each student’s initial post at least once during the duration of the course. This allows me to interact with a set number of students on each forum.

I generally keep my remarks to two or three sentences. Try highlighting a great point a student made or thought that they had. You can then ask a question to promote deeper thought.

For more tips on crafting an engaging online learning environment, check out this peer-authored blog post with free downloadable assets and two how-to videos on Creating the Foundation of a Solid Online Course.