Wednesday, 05 August 2015 16:25

Best Practices in Online Discussion Boards

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Online discussion boards can be a useful platform in online and blended learning to encourage student participation, collaboration, and deeper learning.  When students use discussion boards to communicate their ideas they can create thoughtful and composed dialogue that unfolds over time into a deeper conversation. The asynchronous nature of the discussion allows for deep reflection and development of writing and thinking skills and cognitive exploratory learning. Each time someone interacts with the board, a deeper understanding of the subject matter is developed.


Here are some ways that discussion boards can be utilized in the classroom:

  • Students can share projects or presentations on the board. This way all students explore one area and in depth and share their knowledge with the class.
  • The instructor and students can share and explore current events, community news and media related to course content.
  • The boards allow students to connect with one another and build a social classroom community where they can support one another and communicate about course-related queries.
  • The discussion board can act as a backchannel to discuss and explore course related topics that pique the students’ interest and to create deeper meaning and understanding.
  • To allow students to peer review and provide commentaries on each other’s assignments.

Since discussion boards are somewhat dependent on factors such as the engagement level of participants and the quality of discussion, they are prone to certain pitfalls.  

Common discussion board problems can include:

  • Misunderstood directions
  • Discussions that drift off-topic
  • Procrastinators that wait until last minute to give input
  • Lack of netiquette or respectful communication
  • Too many discussions in the course - students merely “participate” but don’t fully engage
  • Use of discussion board for the wrong reasons. For example, the regurgitation of course materials or answering closed-ended questions. This does not allow for authentic conversation to emerge.

In order to avoid these difficulties, instructors must facilitate the discussion boards in a way to allow for an organic conversation to develop. They must then work to keep it on track and moving in the intended direction, which will allow students achieve course-learning outcomes. For many instructors, it will take practice to find the right balance of involvement vs. hands-off observation.  

There are some best practices to consider for success:

  1. Netiquette: Ensure that you are modeling the style and tone that you expect from your students. You may want to post some netiquette guidelines in your course before students participate in the discussion board.
  2. Balance and Moderation is Key: You want to ensure that you are visible on the discussion board, yet not constantly hovering. If a conversation gets off-track, you may need to redirect it.
  3. Open-Ended Questioning: You will want to encourage deeper thinking by using question starters that provoke open dialogue. Use starters such as explore, compare, discuss, and reflect. Allowing students to connect to their own experiences and share them will give meaning to the discussion.
  4. Purposeful Discussion: When implementing a discussion into your course, first ask yourself “What do I want my students to learn?” Tie the discussion to your course objectives.
  5. Clear Instructions and Grading: Be very clear when posting directions and grading rubrics, and keep them straightforward and simple. This will ensure that students are focused on creating thoughtful discussion as opposed to meeting complicated requirements. Encourage students to support their opinions, and make sure to let them know if it is a requirement to cite resources.
  6. Consider Time Commitments: Discussion boards should encourage thoughtful and reflective writing and can be time consuming for students to engage in. They are equally as time-consuming for instructors to grade and stay on top of. Requiring students to comment on several boards as well as respond to “X” number of posts is not considered a best practice as it may diminish the organic nature of the conversation. It is best when students can choose to respond to conversations they are passionate about.
  7. Mix it Up!: Question and answer, discussion, and reflection are great, but there are other “outside of the box” ways to use discussion forums. You could make students the moderators, ask them to submit video or audio comments instead of writing, plan a debate, or have students upload presentations to the board.

Discussion boards are an excellent place for students to experience significant learning and create meaning while being reflective and sharing experiences with fellow students. The role of the instructor is to set clear expectations for the discussion, facilitate it, and keep it on track so that it meets the intended learning goal. Discussions also provide social benefits and can add an element of connectedness to an online learning environment. Although discussion boards do have certain obstacles to maneuver, instructors can become successful facilitators by following best practices.

Have you thought of how an online discussion board may add value to your classroom? Please share your experience in the comments below.


Edutopia (2010). Mastering Online Discussion Board Facilitation, TeacherStream, LLC. Retrieved from

Janssens-Bevernage, A. (2014). “Post Once, Reply Twice”: Uninspiring Online Discussion Boards and What to do About Them. Retrieved from

Jones, E.L. & Jones, R.C. (2014). The Online Discussion Board: Opening the Gateway to New Learning. Retrieved from

Morris, S. & Stommel, J. (2013). The Discussion Forum is Dead; Long Live the Discussion Forum. Retrieved from

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Erin Howard

At work I pride myself on being a helpful resource for our online instructors- troubleshooting technology issues, creating resources, and helping them feel confident in the online classroom. I feel that by working with instructors it will lead to a greater experience for online students. I also enjoy finding technological solutions for instructors that can enhance their existing pedagogy - taking what they already do well and making it more efficient for the instructor and engaging for students. When I’m not at work, I am usually busy doing something active with my family, friends or dogs. I love running, kickboxing, weight training, hiking, wakeboarding, yoga, biking, dancing and basically anything that gets me moving!