Discussion Board Assignments Designed to Foster Interaction and Collaboration

Editor’s Note: In an article in Distance Education Report, the author outlined five factors she feels contributes to successful online discussions in her literature course. We’re featuring just one of these factors below.

After some trial and error, I have hit upon a discussion board set up that seems to promote the kind of depth and breadth of engagement with the course material and with each other that I would ideally like to elicit.

Students are asked to read between two-to-four pieces of literature (poetry, short stories, essays) and to participate in two discussion boards per week – one group discussion and one pair discussion. For both, they must post an initial answer to a question I pose by Tuesday. Then, by Friday at noon, they must read at least what they’re groupmates have posted and post at least one reply/follow-up.

The delay between initial and final posts allows time for students to read each other’s posts and for me to chime in as well. On any given Tuesday evening, you’ll find me curled on my couch, laptop in place, reading, prompting, questioning, and praising. Because these discussions lead up to two cumulative projects in each module, my feedback early in the process helps to shape the consequent, more formal assignments both in content and in format.

Asking students to puzzle out questions or debate issues in pairs encourages them to speak to each other in the course, rather than to me. They sometimes have to struggle, particularly in the pair debates. Since both students must choose a different side of the debate, they often find themselves having to defend positions with which they do not necessarily agree. This forces them to read the text more closely and to seek additional opinions and information – sometimes from outside sources, sometimes from their peers who are defending the same position. In doing so, they lose some of the self-consciousness they have about being “right” and focus on reading and responding to what their peers are saying.

In an anonymous formative assessment about five weeks into the course, one student put it this way, “I like how much you encourage us to think outside the box. I also really like to read what others post, at times it puts a new perspective on the stories that I probably wouldn’t have thought of.”

Another student wrote, “I like how we have to choose a side and ‘debate’ with our partner why or why not we think something is. My partner has been great thus far and has really made me think about my answers.”

Stacey Curdie is Director of Online Education, Plymouth State University.

Excerpted from How to Get the Most Out of Online Discussions: Five Points and a Rubric, June 15, 2008, Distance Education Report.