March 7th, 2013

Three Ways to Change up Your Online Discussion Board Prompts


Are you having trouble getting students to participate in online discussions? Consider using other types of prompts in addition to the typical open-ended question. Maria Ammar, assistant English professor at Frederick Community College, uses the following prompts in her English as a second language course and recommends them for other types of courses:

  1. Articles—Post an article in the discussion board and have students do an activity related to its content. This gives students more content on which to comment than a typical prompt that consists solely of a question.
  2. Audio—Post an audio prompt. Listening is an integral part of learning a language. It also is a medium that students are comfortable with and find interesting. Ammar has students post their notes on radio broadcasts in a threaded discussion. “Even though everybody is listening to the same [content], they may catch different things,” Ammar says.
  3. Video—Even more engaging is video. Simply post a link to a YouTube video (or one from another source), and ask students to comment or answer an open-ended questions about it.

In courses that are intended to develop students’ writing skills, the discussion board can be an excellent way to get students to write on a regular basis. However, one of the obstacles to students’ full participation in this type of learning is some students’ reluctance to share things that they consider too personal.

One way to address this is to have students write in personal online journals that only the individual student and instructor can access. Ammar does not give students the option of posting in the journal instead of posting to the discussion board. They are both required activities, but some students tend to participate more actively in one or the other.

In some cases the prompt can be the same for the threaded discussion and the journal entry. For example, she once asked students to view an ABC News video of an art project in New York City in which pianos were placed throughout the city for members of the public to play. The video showed interviews with people who played. In the threaded discussion, students summarized the comments of several interviewees, and she asked students write about their personal reflections about the project.

Ammar does not grade online discussion posts or journal entries for grammar or spelling “because I just want to see that they’re able to communicate. I check those things in their [formal] papers.”

Reprinted from Tips From the Pros: Creative Uses of Discussion Boards Online Classroom, (February 2012): 1.3.

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  • Terry

    I really like the ideas in this article. However, why are we teaching students that proper grammar and spelling are appropriate only in the most formal of academic settings? We are not doing them any favors when we indicate that it is permissible to be sloppy and undisciplined in their communications.

  • Raj

    Another way to overcome shyness could be to choose a tool that does not identify the author to anyone bar the tutor! This would encourage learners to participate. this is particularly true for teenage learners as opposed to adult learners.

    • Jeanette

      Most certainly. Hence the personal journal discussion may be useful. the discussion occurs between the instructor and the student. However, the opportunity to interact with peers is sacrificed.

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  • Jeanette

    Traditional teaching- learning strategies have not been meeting the needs of all students. The opportunities technology provides to capture various learning styles may best effect the change. However, teachers must overcome the fear of technology and truly grasp it. Learning experiences via article prompts, audio prompts and video prompts in online discussion, especially the latter will certainly bring excitement and improved participation in the learning process.

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  • Brendan Cronin

    I find when students can apply the concepts to a real situation – or organization – they can better understand how they could use it in their management style. Minor typos in the forum are not a big deal – provided they understand the content and participate in meaningful discussions. Typos in the formal papers – not acceptable.

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  • L A Worthington

    Amman does a disservice to students to allow them to use poor grammar/spelling etc. I would not want to have her students take my class after her/him because those students will feel entitled to be sloppy with other faculty.

  • Bennie Jenkins

    It is a good article.