Using Discussion Boards to Increase Student and Class Engagement: Effective? Clichéd? Let’s discuss.
Updated: Aug 23
We’ve all heard of discussion boards at this point. It has long been introduced to universities and various K-12 schools for students to access course material, complete assignments, and look at grades.
What is a discussion board?
It is an online "bulletin board" where people can hold conversations in the form of posted messages. People can leave and expect to see responses to messages you have left. They differ from chat rooms in that the messages are often longer than one line of text, and are at least temporarily archived.
Meaningful connections between students was not always considered necessary. The discussion forum was not always necessary. Until now. We realize now that a platform which facilitates connection is necessary. With the pandemic and remote learning taking a huge toll on schools around the world, educators and learners alike have slowly turned digital solutions, and online discussions, into a new staple.
In online forums, instructors expect students to talk about course materials with the goal of engaging students in positive learning. Here’s the problem many instructors face: How effective is a discussion board really, and is it beneficial in the classroom setting when all we see is the same old “one post, two comments” method? Can discussion boards truly actually foster community for virtual learners?
With the next generation of learning and technology approaching, it’s time to think about the new potentials that discussion boards hold.
Read more about discussion board misconceptions:
There are often misconceptions around student participation and the roles of instructors when it comes to online communities, but we are here to myth bust for you.
Why Do Instructors Use Discussion Boards in the First Place?
Let’s get down to the crux of why instructors actually (want to) use discussion boards. In order for instructors to achieve their teaching and learning goals, students should be able to apply course content in new situations. Discussions are meant to give students practice in thinking and deliberating course material on their own time outside the classroom setting. Therefore, requiring students to talk with each other about course material is meant to help them process and retain information, rather than just receive it.
Now a problem arises: students are commenting on a Blackboard discussion board at 11:50PM on Sunday night to the same two peers they commented to last week.
Instructors likely have to face students who do the bare minimum required in order to complete the assignment and get a passing grade. In this way, they are only taking a surface-learning approach rather than a deep-learning one to the task at hand. These scenes of increased attrition is common among many students and classrooms, likely due to the fact that instructors are enforcing a “one post, two comments” guideline. It’s restricting.
In these instances, the learning and teaching outcomes are typically not what instructors are hoping for when assigning discussion board assignments.
Potential: Retaining Classroom Material Through Meaningful Peer-to-Peer Connections and Learning
A good online discussion has the potential to provide meaningful collaborative opportunities that promote the ability for deeper learning and understanding. Most of the time, students see discussion boards as just another assignment. In a way, it feels lonely, especially when the connections with other students are not really there. Social learning plays a big role in the learning journey, and students learn a lot by interacting with each other.
In Yellowdig’s platform, there’s a single-scrolling feed that allows students to see at-a-glance what the rest of the class is talking about. Being able to easily see what other students have to say can promote feelings of self-efficacy. For the students who feel overwhelmed by the isolating aspect of virtual discussions, they have the opportunity to realize that they are not truly alone.
Students also don’t have to feel rushed to complete the discussion assignment on time with our platform. There’s no use in forcing conversations because they usually fall flat. Rather than the regular and substantive interactions between students in traditional discussion boards, when students are given a free space to talk, they build a sense of autonomy. This allows them to take ownership of what they’re learning and their educational experience while reaping the benefits of bonding with classmates through meaningful conversations.
What Are Some Good Pedagogical Uses of Online Discussions?
With new learning opportunities replacing traditional face-to-face interaction, instructors have found new ways to facilitate virtual discussions. Whether it be online, blended, or hybrid learning, there are a slew of ways to integrate online forums into any classroom setting. Here are some discussion board examples:
1. Supplementary Board This type of use case allows instructors to provide supplementary content for in-person class discussions. This method is unique because it allows for students who are hesitant about public discourse another outlet to connect with the classroom and instructor indirectly. Typically in these cases, instructors should bring up points from the online discussion in their face-to-face sessions to tie it all together.
2. Community-Building Board These types of discussion boards are meant to promote a learning community between the students. Social learning is extremely important in classroom retention. A community for students to freely discuss doesn’t impose a burden on them, and encourages them to practice processing and retaining course material to be able to apply to different situations.
3. Group Discussion Boards By breaking students into smaller groups, there’s a smaller chance of an escape route. With groups of 4-6 or even 2-3, students are inclined to take responsibility for what they can bring to the table. Many instructors will use this method in a supplementary or community-building discussion board, but can also be used as a stand-alone method.
Post- Pandemic: Will Online Discussion Boards Look Different?
Instructors and students, after a year of being remote, may feel that discussion boards are being overused, especially with the “one post, two comments” algorithm. In the past year, the issue that many instructors saw while running synchronous and asynchronous virtual learning was the lack of engagement in classrooms. It was during this time that institutions grasped the importance of valuable, meaningful, and peer-to-peer teaching and learning opportunities.
With the upcoming school year that is likely to hold new modes of learning, instructors should expect classroom discussion forums to look and function differently. There should be more direct student interaction without faculty over-head. No more discussion posts “due before 11:59 PM on Sunday.” To usher in the new generation of online, blended, and hybrid learning, redefining traditional discussion boards, and rethinking its potentials, can help foster community for in-person and virtual learners.
With a heavier focus on valued discussions between peers, and the absence of restrictions, there will be a plethora of unlocked potential for discussion boards.
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