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Successful Online Discussions

Improve critical thinking, problem solving, adaptability, and communication with great online discussions.

The most common form of interaction in an online course is through the discussion board using forums established by a teacher. Participation and interaction in the discussion board does not occur naturally. You must intentionally design it into your courses. To encourage engaging, quality discussion, craft discussion questions carefully and create inquiry.

If you want to encourage participation, consider allowing students to post anonymously. Also, allow students to create new threads. This flexibility may encourage members to post their ideas and questions. You can also provide incentive by grading the discussion or adding exam questions based on discussion content.

Four steps to successful online discussions

You can help your students feel comfortable and provide them with guidelines as they begin to use the discussion board.

The following list describes four steps for developing successful online discussions to help build community and fulfill assignments.

  1. Define participation requirements.
    • Share your expectations. Create a forum where students can read about etiquette and access grading information.
    • Model proper online interaction and reinforce appropriate behavior with public recognition.
  2. Craft an effective question.
    • Incorporate multimedia resources into your questions to reduce the monotony of purely text-based interactions. With the popularity of services like YouTube™, you can ask students to view a clip and ask for responses.
    • Use the mashups feature to include images, videos, and slide presentations to your questions. Students can also add mashups to their replies.
  3. Encourage new ideas.
    • If discussion posts contain too much agreement and not enough questioning of ideas, try assigning students with the last names A–M to support one side and N–Z to support the other.
  4. Moderate the discussion.
    • Establish your presence by asking for clarification, resources, or input from silent participants.

Effective discussion questions

The quality of the first post in a thread influences the thought level of subsequent postings. A carefully worded discussion question is perhaps the most important factor in using discussions to satisfy your learning objectives.

Bloom’s Taxonomy

You can use Bloom’s Taxonomy to determine what type of question to develop, as well as how to word it. In this classification system, the least complex level, information recall, resides at the bottom of the pyramid as a knowledge base. At the top, evaluation, synthesis, and analysis require the most complex and abstract thinking. Discussions, along with creative assignments and group work, are for higher order thinking.

Evaluation: Ask students to make judgments based on criteria and standards.

Synthesis: Get your students to integrate pieces of knowledge together.

Analysis: Guide your students in discovering and connecting relationships of concepts and ideas.

Application: Ask your students to show how they used the acquired information.

Comprehension: Create questions that ask your students to demonstrate their understanding of the material.

Knowledge: Ask your students questions to see what they remember.

Essential and guiding questions

Essential and guiding questions may also draw out higher order thinking.

  • Essential questions require skills, such as analyzing, synthesizing, or evaluating. Answers to essential questions cannot be readily found on the internet and copied; they must have personal meaning and insight constructed by the student.
  • Guiding questions help students answer the essential question. These questions are subcategories of the main topic and may tap into lower levels of Bloom's Taxonomy.

Ideas for guiding questions

You can develop guiding questions and use them in a number of ways:

  • Students can work in small groups to develop their own guiding questions to help them answer the essential question.
  • You can start with guiding questions and lead up to the essential question through the course of the discussion.
  • You can include them with the initial post to help students get started.
  • You can interject guiding questions when a lull occurs.

Example: Essential Question

How would you design the perfect online teacher?

Example: Guiding Questions

  • What assumptions do you hold about teaching effectiveness?
  • How would you assess a teacher's performance?
  • Identify a list of traits that describe the qualification of perfect. Think about your own experiences as a student.
  • List traits you would avoid in designing the perfect teacher.

Group discussions

By increasing students' interactivity with each other in task-oriented ways, they construct, rather than acquire, knowledge.

One way to do this is to create a forum for each group.

  • The groups can use the forum to come to consensus about topic choices.
  • They can also use it to post internet source links, and then members can post replies on their value.
  • They can use it to divide up tasks and refine the outline.
  • Members can post portions of the presentation, and all members post replies regarding usefulness, grammar, flow, and for agreement on the final product.

Model proper online interaction

In the discussion board, threads grow as users respond to the initial and subsequent posts. Replies build on one another to construct a conversation. As the number of posts grows, users can filter, sort, collect, and tag posts, if tagging is enabled.

To help students understand your expectations, establish discussion etiquette immediately. You can model proper online interaction and reinforce appropriate behavior with public recognition. In addition, you can provide specific guidelines:

  • Use descriptive subject lines to make threads easy to follow and scan.
  • Keep posts short and use uncomplicated language. Your audience is reading onscreen and may have several messages to read.
  • Back up your statements when you agree or disagree with others.
  • Use professional language, including proper grammar, in academic-related posts. No slang, emoticons, or chat acronyms allowed.
  • Use attachments or links to websites for long, detailed information.
  • Stay on topic. If you want to introduce a new tangent, find a suitable forum or start a new thread if it is allowed.
  • Be respectful of other people's opinions and remember the golden rule—to treat others as you want to be treated.

For graded forums and threads, tell students specifically what you expect both in terms of quantity and quality of posts, and consider sharing some exemplary posts. You can also use rubrics to help students understand your objectives. By compiling your grading criteria in a rubric, you can provide students with clear performance standards and grade consistently.

More on rubrics in advanced grading methods

Facilitate the conversation and exchange of ideas

You need to ensure that students feel comfortable to share, while also monitoring responses and keeping everyone focused and on track. At the same time, you want to be careful not to dominate or impede the flow of the discussion.

Occasionally, students may introduce inappropriate material for the class discussion. Depending on the maturity and sensitivity of the students in your course, you may need to review student posts for inappropriate content before sharing posts with the rest of the class.

You can employ both the art and science of moderating discussions to maintain discussion activity throughout the term. Without vigilance on the your part, even discussions starting out with ample excitement can dwindle as the term progresses.

The art of moderating involves finding the right balance between guiding the conversation and standing back to allow students to discover new ideas.

The science of moderating involves using the discussion board functions to keep students focused on relevant discussions and to determine a student’s level of access.

Successfully manage online discussions

You can perform tasks to manage both the discussion board itself and the content within forums and threads. For example, to keep students focused as the term progresses, edit forum settings or organize forums and threads to attract attention again. You can also add forums to other locations, edit content, and delete unneeded forums or threads. To help students locate important posts, you can enable tagging and attach tags.

You can assign forum roles to limit access to a forum or to help with forum administration. For example, to help control the discussion board content that is presented to your students, you can assign a responsible user the role of moderator.

Frequently asked questions

You can make some simple changes to help you successfully manage your discussion board content.

A discussion forum has been available for two weeks with few contributions. What changes can I make to the forum to encourage participation?

You can make two changes:

  • If the topic is potentially controversial, allow anonymous posts.
  • If you are not grading threads, allow students to create new threads. This flexibility may encourage students to post their ideas and questions.

By the end of the semester, my discussion board contains dozens of forums. What can I do to provide better organization and flow?

To keep your discussion board organized, you can perform the following actions:

  • Change the order of the forums, placing the most current forums at the top of the list.
  • Delete ungraded forums that were not used or contain few postings.