Editorial: Making the Most of Online Discussion Boards

by: Susan Wegmann, Associate Dean of Digital Learning and Innovation, University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, and TOPR Editorial Board member

In an online course, the discussion board can be a powerful interaction tool or it can be a repository of disingenuous comments made by less than enthusiastic students. Creating and sustaining an effective online discussion seems like a daunting task as it must have the “right” prompt, the “right” amount of structure, the “right” amount of instructor presence (Moore, 1991), the “right” student/instructor stance (Wegmann & McCauley, 2014) and the “right” requirements for participation. Each of these may vary by course section and purpose. How can we make discussion boards a place for learning and interaction rather than busy work, and what is our role as instructors?

Several entries in TOPR address this question. In Using Video Discussion Boards to Increase Student Engagement (2018), Jones-Roberts describes using video discussions with Flipgrid to respond to higher-order thinking questions. The strategy provides a learning opportunity while paying attention to social presence by reducing feelings of isolation and maintaining course connections and rigor. Online discussion boards may also be combined with other software/URLs to create a case study (Berman, 2020). Design elements (at the course, module, and environmental level) are described in Covello’s (2019) Create Structured Discussion Prompt to Reduce Ambiguity, Reinforce Purpose, and Promote Discourse.

On a personal note, in one large course (n=90), I used the 3R [Respond, React, Reply] pattern (Wegmann & McCauley, 2007). I divided the class into teams of 5-6 and assigned a Discussion Leader for each week of the term (on a rotating basis). The Discussion Leader was responsible for posing a thoughtful question about the readings for the week (due before class that week, and after providing examples of “juicy” prompts that might provoke responses).  Each group member was expected to Respond to the prompt and React to all of their peers’ responses (again, after reading through examples of appropriate responses). They were also expected to Reply to all of the reactions on their original post. I set due dates during the week for each part of the 3R process. Then the discussion leader was expected to post a final response, citing all of their peers as a discussion wrap-up. I only replied to the wrap-up posts, which totaled 4 to 5 posts each week. (Notice, my voice as the instructor was absent until the last post, which seemed to empower student voices and enabled me to keep engaged in the discussion in a manageable way.) I designed a rubric to assess each student individually and provide feedback about their learning.

In our post-ERT (Emergency Remote Teaching) atmosphere, we need to focus on the connections and rapport that discussion boards can afford. One goal for students is to have them adopt what has been called a Connected Stance (Wegmann & McCauley, 2014), or the nexus of high participation and high engagement. How we do this may vary widely, but successful, interested students will learn more and score better on end-of-term grades. So, our challenges are intense to create online discussion boards that meet the needs of students, while having them analyze content and address higher-order issues.   


Berman, S. (2020). Use discussion boards, google docs, and pages tool for online, case-based, collaborative learning. In A. deNoyelles, A. Albrecht, S. Bauer, & S. Wyatt (Eds.), Teaching Online Pedagogical Repository. Orlando, FL: University of Central Florida Center for Distributed Learning. https://topr.online.ucf.edu/use-discussion-boards-google-docs-and-pages-tool-for-online-case-based-collaborative-learning/.

Covello, S. (2019). Create structured discussion prompt to reduce ambiguity, reinforce purpose, and promote discourse. In A. deNoyelles, A. Albrecht, S. Bauer, & S. Wyatt (Eds.), Teaching Online Pedagogical Repository. Orlando, FL: University of Central Florida Center for Distributed Learning. https://topr.online.ucf.edu/create-structured-discussion-prompt-to-reduce-ambiguity-reinforce-purpose-and-promote-discourse/.

Jones-Roberts, C. (2018). Using video discussion boards to increase student engagement. In B. Chen, A. deNoyelles, & A. Albrecht (Eds.), Teaching Online Pedagogical Repository. Orlando, FL: University of Central Florida Center for Distributed Learning. https://topr.online.ucf.edu/using-video-discussion-boards-to-increase-student-engagement/.

Moore, M. G. (1991). Distance education theory. The American Journal of Distance Education, 5(3). 1-6.

Wegmann, S., & McCauley, J. (2007) Can you hear us now? Stances toward interaction and rapport. In Y. Inoue (Ed.), Online Education for Lifelong Learning. Hershey, PA: Information Science Publishing.

Wegmann, S. J., & McCauley, J. K. (2014). Investigating asynchronous online communication: A connected stance revealed. Online Learning: Official Journal of the Online Learning Consortium, 18(1). Retrieved from http://onlinelearningconsortium.org/read/onlinelearning-journal/  

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