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Making the Most of Discussion Boards

With the move online, discussion boards have become a go-to for class participation and having students connect with each other. Here are some strategies to make them more effective (a lot of these strategies come from this article)

  • Emphasize quality and thoughtfulness over quantity and frequency.
  • Make sure students know how these discussion posts relate to their learning/course goals.
  • Ask reflection and open-ended questions rather than recap and summaries.
  • Allow students to post using different modalities (PowerPoint, Youtube, concept map…).
  • Ask students to read other people’s posts and use them to self-reflect: how are other people’s responses similar or different from mine?
  • Put students in groups for the discussion boards so that the discussion board is less overwhelming, and students can actually read all the posts.
  • Incorporate discussion boards with breakout rooms in Zoom, where students use them to keep track of their conversation or review older posts as a conversation starter.
  • Create “discussion norms and working agreement” to set clear expectations. This resource also has more ideas on how to make discussion boards successful.
  • Allow for choices to increase learner autonomy and control for stronger engagement and learning (these suggestions are from Darby's Small Teaching OnlineThanks, Lisa Sperber, for this resource!). Darby's suggestions include: 
    • Offer multiple questions from which students can pick the one they prefer.
    • Provide sets of readings and let student choose what to read and respond to so that they're teaching each other by sharing what they found most significant in the reading.
    • Create self-enrolled groups based on topic interests.
    • Students can choose to respond to another type of course content like a mini-lecture video or a shared google doc, or a project they're working on (reflecting on their process, what they've learned).

Show your presence in discussion boards

It’s important to show up in discussion board and show students that you are reading the posts and participating in the conversation. It’s also important, however, to do it in a way that is manageable for you.

  • If you have group discussion boards, have one student each week summarize the main patterns in the discussion board; you respond to that student’s recap, not all the posts.
  • Create a participation rubric and ask students to evaluate themselves on their participation in the discussion board. There’s a sample rubric on page 95 of The Online Teaching Survival Guide. There are also a lot more ideas and strategies for discussion boards in that book.
  • Consider grading posts as complete/incomplete based on basic specifications you provide. The specifications should only take a few moments to assess (from Small Teaching Online).
  • Select a few responses and paste them unto a document. Respond to those to the whole class (for example by making a video where you discuss them or by writing an overall response to them) or ask the class to respond to them.
  • Establish a regular routine for participating, i.e Tuesdays and Thursday for 30 minutes each. "It's highly motivating for students when you are in the discussion with them-- and the opposite is true, too. Many students are seriously demotivated when their instructor never joins the conversation online" (Small Teaching Online88). 

Tom Liam Lynch, Ed.D has a strategy that actually moves away from the traditional format of a discussion board, called the 3x3 activity:

Students are in groups (4-5 students) and, in response to a reading or other activity, each student develops 3 slides with 3 minutes of narration using PowerPoint, which has a narration tool. Next, each student writes a 50-word response to the other presentations in their group. The teacher responds to each group. The teacher could also respond to the class as a whole. Alternatively, a rotating person in the group could summarize the group’s responses to a whole-class discussion board. Because students have to produce slides, their responses are usually better thought out than general reading responses. For online classes, students also get to hear each other’s voices regularly. Because the instructor can respond to a small group or even the whole class, it saves the teacher time.


Discussion boards can be used for more things than just instruction

  • Discussion boards can be lifesavers to lost or confused students. Have a discussion board dedicated to answering questions from your students.
  • If you make discussion boards group assignments that last all quarter, then students can become comfortable with each other and create small support communities.
  • Have a discussion board dedicated to ice-breakers and community building activities. In times of trauma, it can be useful to have a discussion board just to let other people know how you are feeling.
  • Include a question each week about how what we did that week impacts them personally.

Of course, all of these strategies would work with discussion programs that are not the discussion boards on Canvas. Here are some of the non-Canvas programs that I have heard people use in their classes for creating discussion spaces:




Yellowdig (and here's an article that looks at how to use Yellowdig in the classroom)



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