Increasing Student Engagement in Discussion Boards

by Jackie Wickham Smith

At InstructureCon 2015, I attended the presentation “Creating Online Learning Communities through Discussion Boards” by Marcella Caprario and Belinda Clements from Council on International Educational Exchange – Teaching English as a Foreign Language (CIEE-TEFL)

The presentation highlighted three key findings after a year of analyzing discussion board posts in their course and researching different theories of student engagement in the online space.

  1. Instructor presence, when frequent and planned, on discussion boards increased student engagement in the boards – both in the quantity and quality of postings.
    • Tips for instructors: Be active on the boards so students know you’re listening. Summarize students’ thoughts, tie points together from various posts, or ask probing follow-up questions to encourage students to think more deeply or about a different aspect of the prompt.
  2. Student engagement in the boards dropped during the second half of the 11-week course.
    • Tips for instructors: Anticipate this natural fatigue. Don’t be afraid to reach out to students, individually and as a class, reminding them of discussion board participation expectations.
  3. The lowest number of student responses occurred in discussion board activities asking students to critically evaluate their peers or voice disagreement.
    • Tips for instructors: Set clear expectations for etiquette, tone, and participation in activities that will ask students to critique their peers. If possible, save these types of prompts for the middle or end of the course, after students have already formed a community and gotten to know each other.

CIEE-TEFL used discussion activities based on Gilly Salmon’s 5 Stage Model to increase engagement in their discussion boards. The 5 Stage Model describes how online students progress in learning and how instructors can best support them. Salmon suggests that students should progress through the five stages in order – more success will be had in the later stages if the first have been mastered successfully.

  1. Access and motivation: In the beginning of the class, instructors should be welcoming and encourage all forms of participation on the discussion boards.

Example: a welcome announcement with clear instructions on how to access the boards and expectations for participation

  1. Online socialization: After students have gained access to the course and begun posting, instructors should encourage students to get to know their classmates.

Example: A graded introductions forum, with frequent instructor response and follow up questions

  1. Information exchange: Once students have formed a community, they can begin to exchange basic information and work on cooperative tasks.

Example: asking students to post information from the readings on the discussion boards and create, together, an outline of the chapter

  1. Knowledge construction: In this stage, students build off of the information they’ve contributed to the online community and create their own knowledge.

Example: Assigning groups of students a project to work on, culminating in a team presentation 

  1. Development: Students are able to take the knowledge they’ve created within their online community, reflect on it, and apply it to assessments or other contexts.

Example: A reflective discussion board prompt asking students how they will apply the knowledge they’ve built in their own career

For more information on the 5 Stage Model, visit Gilly Salmon’s website.


3 responses to “Increasing Student Engagement in Discussion Boards

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  2. Hi, Jackie.  Thanks for attending our presentation at InstructureCon, and for the great summary.  So glad to know you found it useful and worthy of sharing.


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