Using discussion boards

How to use discussion boards in your teaching or for student support and community-building.

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Why use discussion boards?

You might want to use discussion boards to:

  • Help students develop skills such as academic reading, writing and debating
  • Extend discussions and consolidate learning from taught sessions
  • Provide opportunities for peer learning
  • Respond to students’ questions. For example, you could post common questions and answers, or invite students to post questions on the discussion board rather than emailing you.
  • Create an informal space for networking, community building and peer support.

Setting up a discussion board

You can easily set up a discussion board within your blackboard course. Follow the instructions here:
Blackboard user guide - Discussion boards

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Using discussion boards effectively

Discussion forums are a great tool for building a class community, however, it is unwise to think, “if I build it, they will come”. Here are some tips for encouraging engagement with a discussion forum:

Tip How to do it
Support students to use the tool Share technical guidance with students so that they know how to use the discussion board tool: Discussion boards - student guidance
Start with an icebreaker Use an icebreaker discussion so that your students can practice using the discussion functionality. Good icebreakers are easy to engage with, regardless of existing knowledge.
Post model contributions A blank forum can be pretty intimidating, especially towards the beginning of the semester when this type of interaction is new to many students. Try to kick off early course discussions with your own thoughts, modelling the type of contribution you’d like to see.
Prompt discussion early Get discussion going early in the week by asking students to share their initial thoughts on the topic. Early reflections like this set in motion a higher level of engagement leading to more insightful discussions as the week progresses.

Try to prompt at least one or two student responses on Day 1 of every activity.

Use generative discussion prompts Well designed discussion prompts can help to stimulate conversation. These prompts need to allow for a multitude of potential answers. If not, the conversation will end very quickly as one learner provides a correct answer.

Prompts that encourage learners to apply the knowledge to their personal context can help start rich learning conversations as learners share experience and insight.

A discussion is an effective way for learners to demonstrate mastery of the course learning objectives so it can be useful to consider how the discussion question aligns with your learning objectives.

See our Discussion board activity ideas

Set expectations and minimum requirements Establish a minimum posting requirement to require student participation. Encourage students to respond to each other, in addition to responding to the main prompt.

Share this guidance for students to help them get the most out of discussion boards: 301: Online communication

Set ground rules for appropriate conduct Set clear expectations about how students should behave on discussion forums, e.g. in terms of the topics covered, language used, how they address each other, etc. Guidance from 301 on online communication sets out some useful parameters for communicating respectfully and effectively.

You could collaborate with your students to write a set of ground rules that everyone signs up to.

Beware hyper-responsiveness Don’t feel you have to respond to every post. This can actually limit the time that other students spend processing and reflecting on the discussion, and can prematurely ‘move’ the debate forward.

It can be helpful to allow for a debate to evolve around one or two similar points, so that the tutor’s response can be structured around coherent sets of issues.

Open up conversations to other students Contribute comments which summarise what learners have posted, as well as follow-up questions that stimulate further discussions. Provide follow-up responses that ask for more information or more in-depth consideration.
Align discussion topics to assignment tasks Align your discussion topics directly to the assignments so that students are better motivated to engage with them. Consider providing a selection of discussion questions and let your students choose from amongst them.

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Case Studies

Dave Forrest (School of English) and Sarah Son (East Asian Studies) have used discussion forums effectively to engage students in their learning and start to build community among students.

Gareth Walker (English) has developed a peer support network for his module. Students are put in groups of 5 or 6 and have a discussion board for their group to discuss module related issues. They also work in these groups in some of the live sessions and have opportunities within these sessions to share with each other how they are getting on with their learning.

The School of Law has set up online forums for students using Google Currents. These are used for individual modules and module related discussion. There is also a forum for more general discussion. They describe their process for building an online community.

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Further Information

Internal links:

External links:

Resources for students: