A Discussion About Online Discussion

Person typing with message bubbles appearing from discussion

This article is featured in the resource guide, Effective Online Teaching Strategies.

When it comes to facilitating online classroom engagement, discussion boards are a great go-to.  They’re practically omnipresent; a tool used in every virtual classroom in every college curriculum.  Ideally, the boards not only fuel student engagement, but they also facilitate critical thinking and a sense of community in online environments. 

Discussion boards also fuel an impressive level of student contempt.  You’ll see it on anonymous discussion boards like Reddit.  Or worse yet, in a compendium of Tweets compiled by an aggregator such as Buzzfeed (Martinez, 2019).  After an initial post, there is, evidently, a predictable pattern for success in a discussion board response-to-peers.  It looks something like this:

Great post, <NAME>!  I so agree that “<EXCERPT>”.  Your observations are so <INTERESTING/RELEVANT/PROFOUND>.  You’ve really addressed the topic nicely.

Additionally, this viral tweet captures a widespread student sentiment about discussion board posts:

As tools, then, it’s not clear that discussion boards are truly delivering a sense of community or enhancing critical thinking skills. There is a disconnect between the goals and the outcomes of online discussion. 

Scientific Research on Discussion Boards

Some of this disconnect may be addressed by consulting the literature.  Afterall, faculty teaching across the spectrum are not typically specialists in pedagogical theories of education; it may be the case that instructors simply don’t know how to create engagement using online discussion.  There are best practices for discussion boards, and such practices have been established for about a decade; they’re nothing new.  While researchers have found that higher-level questions won’t necessarily generate higher-level responses, they’ve also observed that students associate discussion quality with active instructor participation, instructor feedback, and relevant questions that incorporate ideas (Christopher et al., 2010; Dallimore et al., 2010).

So, as a practical matter, a discussion board question that has a finite set of acceptable responses, is probably not going to be the best question. For example, “List the events that triggered WWI,” required consulting a lesson and regurgitating established information.  On the other hand, “Of the events that contributed to WWI, which one is the most underrated/overlooked? Why?” involves looking for something, by definition, that is underexplored in the literature.  It creates a ground for an open discussion. 

And, because research also indicates that instructor engagement is critical for the relevance of discussions, it suggests that a practice of regularly responding to students on the board itself is valuable.

Student and Instructor Engagement

That is, student engagement stems from instructor engagement.

Student and instructor engagement are both essential for the success of the discussion.  It’s fair to ask how much “engagement” is necessary to create a satisfying discussion experience? Is it enough to expect a student to 1) Write a response to the discussion question and 2) Write a response to one other student? Or do more students need to be addressed? How much does the number of replies from one student to another add to the discussion board experience? 

Student responses – Quantity vs Quality

In many cases, a high quantity of generic student responses has been confused as representative of a high quality discussion. 

One thoughtful response to one other student seems as if it would be enough engagement than three throwaway responses that were written to meet the requirement. That’s not to say that all students would write throwaway responses if more than one was required, but increasing the number of responses increases the amount of time spent scrolling through student posts, looking for something to respond to. The discussion then becomes more focused on what can be responded to in this post than engagement with concepts and content.

The takeaway for faculty?  A successful discussion isn’t measured by the quantity of student responses, it’s measured by the quality of student responses.  And quality requires instructor engagement and thoughtful construction of discussion assignments. 

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Christopher, M., Thomas, J., & Tallent-Runnells, M. (2010). Raising the bar: Encouraging higher-level thinking in online discussion forums. Roeper Review. https://doi.org/10.1080/02783190409554262

Dallimore, E., Hertenstein, J., & Platt, M. (2010).  Classroom participation and discussion effectiveness: Student-generated strategies. Journal of Communication Education https://doi.org/10.1080/0363452032000135805

Martinez, K. (2019). 17 Tweets about discussion boards that are brutally honest. Buzzfeed.  Retrieved from https://www.buzzfeed.com/kellymartinez/students-on-discussion-board-posts-who-are-honestly-trying