Discussion Board on Repeat? How to Foster Knowledge Building in Discussion Forums

By Shannon Bramwell

As educators, we set out with the greatest of intentions when assigning discussion boards. We assume that as one of the most common collaboration tools found in learning management systems (LMS), the discussion board would be an intuitive tool and come naturally to students. We envision students will engage enthusiastically and that the collaborative atmosphere becomes one of rich knowledge building. Sadly, this is not always the case. So how do we revive the discussion board? 

Discussion boards are assigned often with instructions similar to this: “Answer the discussion questions provided and comment on at least two posts from your peers”. We provide clear instructions with specific measurements in hopes of equal contribution from all participants and to establish a baseline of criteria for grading purposes. Students appreciate detailed instructions so that they know what to do in order to receive a favourable grade.  

The end result though is far from the robust knowledge building exercise that we envisioned. Instead, students feel the need to answer the questions verbatim in fear of missing marks for not following the directions. This results in multiples of the exact same textbook answers with very little critical thought or opinions shared. Students become disengaged and comment on their peer’s posts with a simple “I agree” or “Good point” which do not contribute to further conversation. The discussion board becomes a record on repeat. It is boring for students and teachers, not to mention tedious to grade. 

To revive the discussion board as a tool for fostering knowledge building, consider the following: 

  • Provide more than one question for students to answer. Having more questions will give your discussion forum more breadth and depth. For example, ask learners to answer 1 of three questions or 2 of five questions. Providing options to students gives them a choice in how they wish to participate. Students will feel more confident in answering the questions they are familiar with and will learn from the answers of their peers to the questions that they are less confident about. 
  • Give students the choice to skip answering the questions if all of the questions have already been answered and they do not have anything additional to add. Instead, encourage students to read through their peer’s posts and reply to their peers. This way the discussions continue and there will be less chance of threads being repeated. 
  • Coach students in the art of online discussion. Encourage them to comment as if they were having a conversation with their peers face-to-face. “I agree” does not add to the conversation but rather seems like a final statement to end a thought process. Instead, provide some starting statements that students can use to build conversation and add to the knowledge already presented. Starting statements such as “I agree and would like to add…”, “Have you considered …”, “I see your point but I believe …”, “I hadn’t thought of it that way. My take on the idea was …” 
  • Encourage students to include references and external links to back up their ideas. This fosters additional knowledge sharing and research skills.  
  • In the spirit of UDL, discussion boards do not have to be limited to text only. Take the time to show students the various functions of the discussion board and encourage them to share their thoughts using various modes of media: text, audio clip, video clip, images and more.  

For myself, I share my expectations and tips for discussion boards at the beginning of each semester with my students. Sometimes this is through a synchronous session which I record and post for everyone or through a video that I create and post. Students are relieved to learn that “Answer the questions and comment on your peer’s posts” comes with a wide range of flexibility in which questions they answer and how they answer. The end result is interesting, engaging and truly fosters a community of learning.  

Shannon Bramwell, M.Ed. is the program coordinator of the Event Planning diploma program in the School of Hospitality, Tourism and Culinary Arts. She teaches both in the Event Planning program and the Event Management graduate certificate program.