Making the Most of Discussion Boards

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Civics Instructional Specialist
Facilitating opportunities for student to student discussions can be challenging in the best of circumstances. During the pandemic, teachers have had to reimagine protocols to facilitate current and societal issue discussions in remote, hybrid, and socially-distanced classrooms. Many Learning Management Systems (LMS) provide discussion boards as a means to facilitate asynchronous dialogue. Like any good lesson plan, great discussion boards rarely “just happen.” They take planning and intention to work.

If your discussion boards in the past “fell flat,” here are tips to help you revisit this tool. If your discussion board game is strong, perhaps there is an idea or two to enhance your current practice.

Engage Student Voice in Creating Discussion Board Norms

Many students regularly engage in online dialogue, but your expectations for academic discussion will most likely be different than norms employed on TikTok and Instagram.
  • Your school most likely has rules to prevent cyberbullying and promote Digital Citizenship. Be sure to review these non-negotiable rules.
  • Once the ground rules are established, engage students in creating norms to respond to the essential question, “How will we live together in online spaces?” Collect their responses in a word cloud, a padlet, or google doc. Work together to organize the ideas into “buckets” to create a manageable list of online discussion agreements.
  • Provide students examples and non-examples of student responses to prompts and have students discern the positive and negative attributes of each example to “test” the norms created and adjust the norms as needed. Do not use actual student work in this endeavor.
  • Revisit these norms throughout the year.

Give Students the Language of Questioning, Collaboration, and Cooperation

Kids say the darndest things, especially if they do not know any better. Give students the language of questioning, cooperation, and collaboration to make your online discussion boards work. Providing a range of sentence starters or prompts to choose from creates a richer, more organic discussion for you and your students to follow.
  • If the purpose of the discussion board is to share and discuss questions over a complex text, consider using a tool like the Q Matrix, which provides question starters and Depths of Knowledge (DoK) varying from literal, inferential, speculative, and evaluative questions.
  • Consider giving students a range of question starters or sentence starters to choose from to differentiate responses and provide students some options to best capture their thoughts. For example, you might direct students to share their questions from a close reading as follows: choose and complete at least 3 of the following question starters using your wonderings highlighted in blue from the article.
    • I wonder about…
    • I am confused about…
    • What does it mean when the author says…
    • Do you think that…
    • How does this connect to…
    • Another thing I would like to know is…
    • Create your own.
  • You do not need to “reinvent the wheel” when it comes to providing students with the language for collaboration and cooperation. Consider the following resources.
  • Encourage students to use varied rhetorical tools in their discussion board posting. The Basics of Persuasion from the Constitutional Rights Foundation teaches about using logos, ethos, and pathos.

Give Students the Language to Respond and Engage in Civil Discourse

Discussion boards can be used to facilitate student to student discussions, often engaging students who often shy away from verbal dialogue in real-time. Discussion boards provide the opportunity to stop, reflect, and craft a thoughtful posting and reply to others. If you want students to go beyond, “I agree” in their response, give them the tools they need to do so.

These Discussion Transition Statements developed by Illinois Civics Instructional Coach Candace Fikis give students the language to build on the comments of others, transition between topics, and invite others into both verbal and digital spaces.

Give students a range of options to reply to their peers. For example, building on the prompt provided above to share questions from close reading, you might direct students to reply to one another as follows. After you have created your initial post, please respond to two of your peers using the methods below:
  • Corroborate their question. Share why this is also something you wondered about or something that was pointed and new to you as well.
  • Reply to their question. Perhaps the idea of the article they question is one that you highlighted because it was reaffirmed in your thinking or prior experience.
  • Ask a follow-up question to clarify your understanding of their perspective and the context of their experience.

Let Discussion Boards “Breathe”

Do you find that on the discussion board, the “early bird gets the worm” and all of the replies from peers, while those who take a bit of more time to craft a thoughtful response often garner no replies? You can remedy this by giving ample time for all students to share their initial posting to the prompt and then provide directions to reply to others, encouraging students to find someone who has not yet received a response. Providing time to “take a breath” between the initial posting and responses can make all the difference.

Provide Time to Reflect on the Discussion Board Experience

Educator John Dewey explained, “We do not learn from experience... we learn from reflecting on experience.” Taking the time to help students reflect on what they learned about themselves and others through dialogue is an important formative assessment for any discussion. The Illinois Civics Curriculum Design Toolkit has resources to support this work in Safe and Reflective Classrooms.

What methods do you use to engage students on discussion boards? Please comment below. Be sure to visit our Current and Societal Issue Discussion page for more resources to engage students in this proven practice of civic education in remote, hybrid, or traditional classrooms.

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