The Power of Discussion Boards

Written by Angie Portacio
December 12, 2016 • 3 minute read

Despite the fact that discussion boards provide students with an avenue for participation and dialogue in an online environment, the actual use of the board or the quality of posts may fall for many reasons. The three most common reasons can be summarized in the following:

  1. Students do not participate in online discussion boards to avoid conflicts with fellow classmates.
  2. Students don’t see that their participation brings value to their learning experience.
  3. Students will not provide reflective and cohesive responses either because they want to avoid conflict, or the instructor did not provide parameters around the quality of the response. In cases like this, students will post short replies such as, “Nice post!” or “I don’t agree.”

This article will define what an online discussion board is, survey the benefits of online discussion board participation, and lastly, provide best practice tips to facilitate a successful online discussion experience.

By definition an online discussion board, also known as a forum, is an area where people can have conversations through posting their ideas, responding to other posts and posing questions. For example, Apple has several forums for customers to post difficulties they may have with their Apple computers, tablets, or phones. Customers will post their problems with their equipment and then either another customer or an Apple representative will reply with suggestions for possible solutions.

In an educational environment, an online discussion board can be created through either the campus learning management system (LMS) or another tool such as Google Hangouts. An online discussion board provides the ability for asynchronous discussions to occur over a period of time. Students are able to gather their thoughts and ideas before posting and sharing their reflective responses, which leads to more in-depth learning.

Some of the benefits of an online discussion board are:

  • Builds a community with peers and the instructor in an online environment.
  • Creates opportunities for students to practice and sharpen a number of skills, including the ability to articulate and defend positions, consider different points of view, and create in-depth reflective responses.
  • Gives all students a voice, especially those who are normally quiet in a classroom environment, need more time to compile their thoughts, or want to avoid a conflict or disagreement.
  • Empowers students to view and respond to their peers in a safe and respectful environment.

According to Margaret A. Martyn (2005), author of “Using Interaction in Online Discussion Boards,” “Productive discussion does not happen automatically — it must be planned” (p.61).

At first, the difficulty of developing a successful online discussion board is finding the formula that best fits your teaching style and assists students to successfully meet the learning outcomes of the activity. The following list provides a few common best practice tips for a successful and interactive online discussion board:

  • Define a Netiquette and Expectation Policy: In your syllabus, provide a netiquette policy for all discussion boards and clarify what is expected from your students.
  • State a Purpose: Be sure to tie in your course learning objectives into the discussion and how you want students to achieve those learning objectives. Do you want students to demonstrate their knowledge of key concepts or share a personal experience that relates to the topic?
  • Create Clear Instructions and Grading: Clearly state simple instructions and grading policy for participation in the discussion boards.
  • Pose Open-Ended Questions: Use questions that will encourage students to explore, compare, discuss, and reflect on their responses based on their own personal experiences. This may ignite an open and continuing dialogue with their peers.
  • Set Limits: Think of how to manage your time in facilitating but also ensuring students are able to meet deadlines and post meaningful responses. For example, schedule days and times when student discussion posts are due for the whole semester so students will incorporate these days/times in their schedules. Also, set the length of student posts to a manageable amount for you and other students to review. For example, each post should be a minimum of 200 words and a maximum of 500. This will help students create in-depth and reflective responses within these parameters.
  • Ensure Instructor Presence: Engage students by interacting with them within the discussion boards. Clear up any confusion or questions. Compliment good posts and conversations. Ensure that your students are able to voice their responses in a safe online environment.

Where do you go from here? If you already use online discussion boards in your course, perhaps you can re-evaluate them and make any adjustments necessary to improve student experiences. Try creating a class Netiquette Policy so students are involved in setting a safe online environment for their class, or rewording a question to generate more student interactivity.

If you are thinking about using an online discussion board for the first time; create one online discussion board using the best practices listed above as a pilot, then evaluate student responses and make any adjustments necessary to produce the desired learning outcome expected from your students.

Collaborate In and Out of the Classroom

Dr. Kevin Oh, a professor of Learning and Instruction in the School of Education, uses Canvas discussion boards to promote student collaboration and maintain course-related dialoguing outside of class. Professor Oh finds that students enjoy being engaged with one another.

Using the Canvas Discussion Board

Are you or someone you know finding success with incorporating discussion boards in your teaching? If so, we'd love to hear from you! Email

Access Canvas at USF or learn more about the learning management system at the Canvas ITT resource page.

To learn how to use Canvas effectively in your course, contact Instructional Design to request a consultation.

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