Discussion Boards: Add Variety and Stir.

by Jeanne Kerl

Why Use Discussion Boards?

Discussion boards are a commonly-used strategy to encourage engagement in an online class. But how do you keep discussions fresh?  How might you add variety to the discussion boards in your class?

We have 5 tips to share with you:

1. Ask students to end their initial response with a question for their peers.

This approach opens up the discussion. When a student reads through the discussion board, there are a variety of questions/discussions to engage in, which creates a richer experience for everyone. The goal of this strategy is to help students consider more topics and ideas.

2. “Find an example” prompts.

We’ve heard from our instructors that these types of prompts have been an effective way to learn. Simply ask students to find a good example of Concept A and explain why they think their example is a relevant one.  Students must then build their argument and cite evidence to back it up.

3. Pair up.

Have students team up in pairs to write their answers. This allows them to meet someone and figure out how to work together in a low-stakes assignment. Students hear another perspective and hopefully, they are more thoughtful after this experience. Obviously, this can be a community-building bonus, as well.  You may want to have a reflective element to their response that explains what each person thought, contributed, and how they reached a consensus.

4. Ask a provocative question.

Give them something meaty to talk about. For example, Laura Otten (2020) uses this one successfully:

“I often ask my students this question: Do nonprofits, regardless of their mission, have an obligation to work for social justice? The responses triggered by this question, and the replies by students to their classmates’ posts, demonstrate their ability to comprehend and apply the course material.”

5. Give students options. 

For a few weeks during the quarter, have three options for students to answer—they only need to answer one of them. This gives them the chance to write about what they want and it also means that you’ll have three different conversations going. In this case, ask students to start their reply with “I’m responding to Prompt #3” to help organize the replies.  Alternatively, you can simply set up three different boards to keep things tidier.

Do you have tips you’d like to share with us?  Simply write to us at distanceeducation@northwestern.edu

For other tips on creating an effective, engaging discussion board in your class, read The secret weapon of good online teaching by Flower Darby (2020).



Darby, F. (2020). The Secret Weapon of Good Online Teaching: Discussion Forums. Retrieved 2020-09-28 from https://www.chronicle.com/article/the-secret-weapon-of-good-online-teaching-discussion-forums

Otten, L. (2020). Transitioning to Online Learning. Retrieved 2020-09-28 from https://diverseeducation.com/article/186510/

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