Bringing The Power Back To Your Online Discussion Boards

Chelsea Penney
March 31, 2022

Are you struggling to engage students in authentic dialogue while building class community? Our virtual school expert, Kip Pygman, explains best practices including thought-provoking ideas and ways to get students to stop, pause and reflect.

This webinar focuses on best practices in online instruction and online discussion boards. Whether you teach online, face-to-face, or blended, you can use discussion boards. Online discussion forums can generate great value for you and your students, regardless of the learning modality that you can teach. These topics are applicable across all ecosystems.

Kip Pygman: 20 years ago it was very, very exciting when a teacher or a college instructor started leveraging discussion forums in their classrooms. It was exciting because it was novel. Somewhere along the last 20 years when teachers assign discussion prompts, a lot of students no longer look at it as exciting, they look at it kind of like a chore. We want our students to be excited again. 

To start, you need to invite interesting discussion prompts, things that are worth talking about. As a host, you need to be the facilitator, monitoring for appropriate behaviors and etiquette. If somebody gets out of line, you need to redirect them or prompt people to extend the conversation. 

Common Pitfalls of Online Discussion Forums

  • Ineffective prompts
  • Too many prompts
  • Non-discussion task as a discussion
  • Not aligned to outcomes
  • Minimal planning, modeling, facilitating

Some common pitfalls of online discussion forums often result in poor student participation and poor student responses. Oftentimes, the reason that students aren't engaged and the responses lack that substance and that deep quality that we want as a teacher is because we fail to create effective prompts. We can assign too many prompts, so the actual act of engaging in conversation becomes routine and boring because we're doing one every other day or one every week. Other times, we assign things that shouldn’t be in a discussion forum as a discussion or prompts that aren't aligned to outcomes. As the teacher, maybe we couldn’t put as much time into planning, modeling, or facilitating to get the engagement that we want. These pitfalls impact the effectiveness of the forum. 

Purpose and Value of Online Discussions


  • Build class community
  • Connect prior and cross-discipline learning
  • Personalize the learning experience
  • Strengthen cultural awareness and empathy


  • Provides more time for thoughtful responses
  • Generates the four C’s: Creativity, Critical thinking, Communication, Collaboration
  • Removes peer pressure
  • Encourages inclusion of all students
  • Creates conditions for learning where the whole is greater than the parts

Because discussion forums give students time to be thoughtful, encourage everyone to participate and inspire an open mind, the quality of learning can be very high. All students participate in a non-threatening way because you're not getting called on. Forums allow them a safe space and the reflection time to feel comfortable in the learning environment. If done right, online discussions can create conditions of learning where the sum of all the class contributions are better than the part. How powerful can that be when it opens up your perspective with all the different cultures, thoughts, and worldviews that everybody in the class has!

Before Delivering Online Discussions

  1. Set purpose and expectations
  • Why are your learners engaging in the discussion?
  • How will you present your directions?
  • What will the students be doing? Are your instructions explicit, consistent, and bias-free?

The number one step is to think about the purpose and the expectations. Why are we asking our students to engage in the discussion? Too often than not, when we teach virtually we think we just need to put a discussion up there. We need to first think about the purpose. What are we trying to have our students accomplish?

  1. Build feedforward and feedback banks
  • Provide exemplar and non-exemplar examples
  • Create your teacher response plans: Constructive criticism, Positive feedback

We need to assume that, for many of our students, this is their first exposure to a quality online learning course. We need to reinforce the behaviors and the actions that lead to a successful virtual learning experience. It's important to give them that affirmation. If you have students doing really good, they're posting really well, they're consistently posting early, or they're weaving in information from their personal life into the discussion forum, you want to acknowledge that. I would always have these feedback banks open in my tabs. As I would read students' discussion prompts, I would follow up with them individually. I'll just copy and paste the canned response, add one or two customized lines, and fire it off to the student. 

  1. Practice
  • Provide a practice prompt
  • Don’t grade, just provide encouragement and establish expectations
  • Coach them
  • Empower them to set a positive tone

Assume students have not been exposed to how to engage in healthy dialogue, healthy discourse online, so we need to teach them. If you haven't integrated discussion forums, or you have but you haven't modeled the right way that you think you should, it's okay to go back and practice. Model for the students an example. Post a quality response, then do it together, then release them to do it on their own.

The foundation of a good discussion is having something worthwhile to discuss. It starts with your prompt. After you deliver that prompt, you should be excited to read those responses. If you are, then your students probably will be too.

  1. Set an effective prompt
  • Avoid repeating back prompts
  • Avoid factual questions that lead to similar responses
  • Avoid obvious, boring prompts
  • Avoid complexities
  • Prompts don’t have to be questions: Use audio/video, Roleplaying, Simulations, Guest speakers, Current events
  • Leverage images

While Delivering Discussions

Once the discussion is live, what you do as a teacher is just as important as coming up with a good prompt. Encourage interaction between students and ask more questions to deepen the discussion. Respond to 10-20% of posts. Challenge the thought leaders within the class to continue the conversation.

  1. Be proactive
  • Privately address students who are not engaged
  • Publicly acknowledge exemplary posts and explain why
  • Encourage community inquiry
  • Bring in current events

       2. Monitor etiquette

  • Privately address concerns
  • Find opportunities to promote digital citizenship
  • Leverage your feedback bank

       3. Participate

  • Showcase your presence but do not dominate
  • Respond to 10-20% of posts
  • Extend conversations with convergent and divergent questions or probes
  • Weave together different responses

After Delivering Discussions

After a discussion closes, reinforce the learning by offering a wrap-up that summarizes the perspectives, showcases strong responses and extends learning. Then, use the wrap-up with other groups of students. When the course is ending, ask for student feedback on the prompts and discussions. Their evaluation can help you hone the effective discussions to engage the next class.

  1. Offer a wrap-up
  • The discussion doesn’t need to stop
  • Showcases your presence and the strengths of your community of learning
  • Make learners aware of the range of interpretations that are possible in an intellectual inquiry
  • As the teacher, you can control how your discussion stops and generate a thought-provoking, appropriate end 

       2. At the end of the course, have students rank the discussions

Discussion Forum Tools

There are plenty of tools available online to freshen the students’ experience. In addition or instead of using the discussion board within your traditional LMS, try some new resources to engage students in a new, creative way.

  1. Free
  2. Easy to use for teachers and students
  3. Text, audio, video
  1. Free
  2. Easy to use for teachers and students
  3. Video dialogue
  4. Pin questions to specific points within the video
  1. Free
  2. Easy to use for teachers and students
  3. Students watch a video, answer a quiz, read articles and then discuss
  1. $79/year or $15/month
  2. Students respond via audio

Additional Online Discussion Engagement Tips

  1. Develop a prompt and assign each student a different perspective to apply to their response (answer as if you were 50 years old, answer as if you lived in Africa, etc.).
  2. Allow student moderators to become the teacher.
  3. Open a Q&A forum where classmates can ask each other non-academic questions.
  4. Generate 2-3 prompts with the same learning outcome. Split the students into groups to answer.
  5. Challenge the leaders of the discussion.
  6. Controversy equals engagement, use it as a teachable moment.
  7. When students are shy, reach out privately to tell them you value their insights and the whole class could benefit from their perspective.

Click here for a free downloadable guide to online discussions.

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about the author
Chelsea Penney

Chelsea Penney earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in Writing from University of Colorado Denver and her Masters of Science in Marketing from Texas A&M University Commerce. She loves living in Austin, TX and working on the frontline as Content Marketing Manager for Proximity Learning.

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