University of Wisconsin–Madison

Strategies for Developing Low-Stakes Writing Activities: Discussion Boards

Asynchronous discussion boards offer you an opportunity to build community—either the full class or small groups—around course content. And recognizing the diverse geographies of your online students, they likewise allow for engagement across time zones and can better accommodate those who have internect connectivity issues.

For information on setting up a Discussion Board in Canvas, check out this resource from the Canvas team.

Tips for improving online discussion boards

Gernsbacher recommends sections of 6-8 students. Dividing a class into smaller groups creates a sense of intimacy and the opportunity to engage deeply with classmates. It also means that students are forced to engage with one another, rather than just answer the prompt and walk away.

Rather than just posting the prompt, make sure you are “directing traffic”: telling students who they are responding to, when the post is due, and so on. If you are asking students to post an original contribution and also respond to another student’s post, make the due dates for the two assignments at least one day apart (otherwise, there’s no guarantee that enough students will post until shortly before the first deadline). Provide feedback and coaching to help students understand the type of engagement you are looking for.

Rather than asking “What did you think about…?”, ask students to find, compare, analyze, describe, or more. This gives them a clear purpose to their task, rather than a free-floating invitation. Resist writing prompts for which only one response is acceptable because one one student responds correctly, there’s nothing more for other students to add.

Options for Structuring Asynchronous Discussion Engagement

With this approach, you set the initial parameters of discussion and your students take it in the direction that they see fit. You can also consider joining in on the conversation, noting particularly thoughtful responses and asking questions to encourage students to dig deeper.

  1. Everyone responds to original prompt by Date 1.
  2. Everyone responds to a few other students’ responses by Date 2.

This approach allows students to first offer multiple unique contributions to the prompt or to others’ responses, ensuring that they are engaging with the course content from a few different directions. This can be particularly useful when discussing a particularly complex concept or reading(s). 

  1. Everyone responds at least x times between Time A and Time B. 
  2. Everyone responds y more times later between Time C and Time D.

This approach gives students a hands-on opportunity to determine the direction of the discussion. This is a particularly good example of student-centered learning. This approach can be useful when you want to offer students flexibility in their responses, just make sure that course content is still being addressed!

  1. Stage 1: Every student (or group of students) suggests their own discussion prompt/question. 
  2. Stage 2: Instructor or the students curate the list and select a smaller subset of prompts/questions to respond to. 
  3. Stage 3: Students respond to X number of the curated questions/prompts.

Rotating student discussion leaders allows students to develop critical thinking skills by asking them to do some of the facilitation work. Asking students to make some of the connections between students not only takes some of the pressure off of you, but it provides students with the opportunity to take the conversation in directions that they find fruitful and engaging.

  1. Students contribute in an unstructured manner. 
  2. After all have contributed, discussion leaders highlight particular contributions and summarize key elements. (If using student discussion leaders, check in with them and help them think through the kind of prompt to design.)