The Discussion Board: How Faculty Can Make Discussions Authentic and Not Transactional

Individuals in their discussion bubbles talking on online discussion board

The discussion board is one of the most used assessments in online learning communities around the world. The discussion area is a place for students to interact and participate in meaningful conversations. Discussion boards are instrumental for engaging students in the learning process and creating a diverse learning community. Therefore, discussion boards need to be more integrated, unified, and blended; however, most students have not been taught how to participate in an authentic and digital asynchronous exchange. In a recent study by Gardner and Fischman (2021), more than half of college students view college as transactional. Transactional experiences relate to going to college to get a degree, building a resume for graduate school, or getting a job. When students are transactional, they can feel alienated or have a lack of belonging to their intellectual work (Gardner & Fischman, 2021). If used correctly, the discussion board can combat the notion that college is simply a transactional event and put the focus back on learning.

The potential of online discussions

Instructors can combat this transactional mindset by making discussions lively. Vibrant discussions flow through threaded, asynchronous conversations inspired by thought-provoking questions that lead to authentic learning. To maximize the potential of online discussions and make them less transactional, these unsynchronized conversations need to be relevant and inspire dialog that empowers and enlightens the learning community. Discussion boards must be viable, as they can improve student learning and help create greater satisfaction with the course. An energetic discussion thread must be authentic and optimize the innovation of human thought and potential. Discussions must be active, authentic, and innovative. These authentic learning experiences are developed through scaffolding novel thinking, original writing, and pertinent theory. To support new and higher-level critical thinking by the learner, instructors must participate, ask thought-provoking questions, and engage the learning community. This community presence supports camaraderie and fosters emotional connections among students. Students can engage in the learning process by providing genuine, thoughtful, well-informed interactions and not participate simply to get a grade.

An instructor’s daily presence

Instructors want students to not only respond to the discussion prompt, but to also take part in an authentic, substantive manner.  To experience success with the discussion board, it is vital that the instructor has a daily presence in the classroom. The instructor’s daily presence and participation in the online classroom is critical to helping students learn, gain confidence, and feel secure in their new and sometimes foreign environment. The classroom must be inviting and inspire innovative thought, collaboration, and professional communication. Meaningful participation can be accomplished by instructors through mindful, professional, and supportive collaboration that creates a community of authentic learners. Transactional learning lessens when a learner’s topic is molded into a researchable problem. Suggesting alternative problem statements based on the problem is exciting and participatory. Sharing links and discussing additional resources results in synergistic experiences. Assuming a different role and providing a perspective that differs from your colleague’s perspective is refreshing. To accomplish an authentic learning community, the instructor can enhance the discussion board through daily interactions.

Achieving authenticity

To achieve authenticity, we recommend that you, as an instructor, work to make learning come alive. This can be accomplished by expanding on the topics presented. Instructors can do this by sharing additional information on the subject or sharing a different perspective. Strategies such as debate and using the Socratic method may also provide ways to gain genuine participation. Other strategies may include sharing and citing resources on the topic, sharing real-life examples and experiences related to the issue, asking probing questions, asking students to use course materials to answer prompts, and asking multi-level questions. In short, ask students to complete a task when responding to them.

Powerful tools of technology

To achieve variety, excitement, and differentiation, the powerful tool of technology needs to be integrated into the online course presentation. Outside materials, websites, YouTube, Ted Talks, videos, simulations, and field experiences should be integrated into the digital online learning experience. Instructors may also use technology to set up peer reviews in an online discussion. This can be accomplished by setting up smaller groups to review each other’s discussion responses. Additionally, if students know their peers are anonymously evaluating their discussion, they are more likely to be authentic and less transactional. Professors may also consider including audio or video feedback responses to discussion posts, as well as hosting synchronous discussions with the learning community. This strategy models differentiation and provides individualization in feedback or responses.

The discussion is widely used and can be a valuable tool in assessing online learning. High interaction among learners is essential and necessary for authentic knowledge to occur. If instructors want genuine learning to occur in the discussion area, they must break free from conventional norms and try inventive strategies to promote authentic conversation, opinion sharing, and collaborative inquiry. To make online learning truly a social and authentic process, instructors must imagine new and innovative ways to elicit debate, inspire meaningful ideas, and fully engage the learning community.

The authors have over 100 years of collective experience in school leadership, school district leadership, and higher education. Dr. Michelle McCraney has served as a state college administrator, faculty member, principal, assistant principal, program and staffing specialist, and teacher. She is currently employed as an online university professor. Dr. Judith Blakely is certified in several states as a school administrator, superintendent, director of special education, gifted instruction, and bilingual education. She has provided service to students and instructors in grades k-12, community colleges, technical institutions, and universities (both private and public institutions). She presently works at a university as a school administrator providing service and support to both the master and doctoral level faculty and students. Dr. Michael Jazzar has served as a university administrator and professor, board trustee, superintendent of schools, principal, curriculum director, counselor, and teacher. He is currently employed as an online university professor.


Gardner, H. E. & Fischman, W. (2021) Does truth have a future in higher education? Studies in Higher Education, 46:10, 2099-2105, DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2021.1953332

Joneja, R. (2016). Study of Multiple Intelligences Model of Howard Gardner in Higher Education. Aweshkar Research Journal, 21(2), 13–18.