Moving Forward: Teaching in Uncertain Times

Community Blog on online, hybrid, and F2F teaching during the pandemic

Building a Better Discussion Assignment

I remember my first discussion board assignment.  It was 1995, and the whole process seemed confusing and futuristic. The teacher asked a simple question about the reading, and we all dutifully answered. Even in those early days, there was one know-it-all who had nothing better to do than chime in on every post and wow us with his boundless knowledge.  In the end, the assignment was alright.

This semester, because there wasn’t enough stress, I decided to use my TAP and enroll in an online program at another university. Poor timing aside, I’m enjoying studying outside my specialty, but I was shocked when I logged in to class and found that the discussion posts I’m completing in 2020 look surprisingly like those first discussion posts I completed 24 years ago.

The similarity fascinates me because for years faculty have been telling me that discussion posts don’t work. The most common complaints I hear are that students don’t engage enough, students don’t post thoughtful responses, or worse, students just copy other students’ posts. I also hear that student posts are painfully boring and the students think of them as busy work. So, if discussion assignments are so bad, why are we still assigning them?   

One answer might be that discussion posts are an easy way to venture in to blended learning. Of all the assessment tools in iCollege, discussions might be the simplest to figure out. Maybe we’ve just all been slowly incorporating them over the years, and I’m seeing generation after generation of discussion-board converts become disillusioned.  

Another, though, might be that we have an intuitive faith in the discussion board’s potential, especially in times like these, to recreate aspects of in-person engagement that are often missing from online classes. If done properly, they can serve that purpose, but we must reconsider the way we’ve been using them.

Often, discussion posts are used to test reading and writing. The assignments might look like this:

  1. What was the main idea of the reading?
  2. Explain Dr. X’s concept of Y.
  3. What are two important ideas you learned from the reading?
  4. What new idea did you take away from the reading?

These aren’t bad prompts, necessarily, but they will all, most likely, end up being answered in similar ways. Take number 1, for example, there’s only one correct answer to that question and not much room for elaboration or response from classmates. The last three prompts provide some room for innovation, but depending on the length of the reading, there’s probably not going to be a great deal of difference in students’ responses.

If you’re looking for more innovative responses and more thoughtful discussion among your students, consider letting them choose how to respond to the posts. Universal Design for Learning encourages teachers to integrate assignment choice as a means of creating equity in the classroom. The article Discussion Boards: Valuable? Overused? Discuss from Inside Higher Ed offers some ideas for revitalizing discussion boards, including allowing students to choose their response medium. Students who feel comfortable writing may choose to provide a written response; others may offer may create a video response. Students could attach drawings or edited audio files. The goal is to allow the students to provide their answers in a manner best suited to their talents.

Similarly, I use my discussion board to outsource the collection of supplemental materials, and I allow for choice.  My students choose from twelve different assignment styles and topic choices. They decide which one they’d like to apply to the reading for the week. None of the posts are ever the same. As I scroll through, I may see a two-minute video discussion with imagery, or a scholarly article review, or a discussion of a helpful YouTube video, or a short, researched response on an artifact they wondered about as they read, or a photograph of something in their life with an explanation of how they relate the image to a concept we’re covering. I require them to respond to two other posts, but they often get into interesting discussions about what they’ve shared because most of them are proud of the work they’ve done. As importantly, I can tell by looking at my students’ click history in iCollege that they click on many more posts than they’re required to, which at least suggests, that they’re learning from one another. I score the posts using a universal rubric that requires development, evidence of content knowledge, addition of knowledge, and source incorporation to make sure that no matter how they decide to approach the post, they’re graded according to the same criteria.

My assignment won’t work for everyone’s class, but I offer this description, and the ideas from the Inside Higher Ed article as encouragement that discussion boards CAN work to increase student engagement in online courses. To make them work, for our students and for ourselves, we may just have to reconsider what we hope to achieve when we offer the assignment. If the model established in 1995 isn’t working for you in your class, consider offering more choice in how they complete the assignments. If you give your students the chance to choose, they might just surprise you with how creative and engaged they can be.

jenniferhall • October 15, 2020

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