Moving Forward: Teaching in Uncertain Times

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

What to Do with All Those Discussion Board Posts

In a previous blog post, Jennifer Hall gives advice about “Building a Better Discussion Board Assignment.” Hall reminds us of the relative ease and importance of using discussion boards to engage students and track their learning in hybrid and online course modalities, and she offers some great suggestions for how to give students choice and mix-up the styles available for students to respond. Maybe you’re convinced of the value of discussion board posts, and maybe you’ve even been experimenting with the style of your discussion assignments!

Now that the posts are rolling in–the threads and embedded threads within topics and forums on your iCollege discussion board–what are you going to do with all those posts?

iCollege Discussion Form Menu

In this “lessons learned” post, I’ll suggest a few possibilities for effectively using discussion board content to both enhance and deepen student learning, while also not overwhelming yourself with grading and commenting. 

1. Scour Class Interactions for Clues

In Small Teaching Online, Flower Darby makes a good point about the shift many of us have likely experienced in moving from face-to-face to hybrid or fully online teaching: we lose the visual cues of seeing whether are students are “getting it”–whether they’re bored, confused, or super engaged. Darby recommends “check in frequently [on discussion boards] and keep an eye on student interactions, even if only for a few minutes two or three times a day” (p. 39)–doing so would allow you to jump in to briefly address a misunderstanding before an entire thread of discussion goes off-track and perpetuates an incorrect reading or understanding of a course concept.

Frequent, quick check-ins to observe the discussion board also allow you to gain a sense of whether the class is generally “getting it” or still confused. If you’re seeing several students asking the same questions, Darby recommends “instead of replying to each one, post a quick video or text announcement to further explain and clear up confusion.” 

2. Remind Students to Come Back and Read the Threads

Talking with a fellow GSU colleague a few weeks ago, he commented that he tells students “the answers are all in the discussion board” threads. The discussion boards, when used effectively, can be a primary source of knowledge for helping students understand course concepts. However, too often students come to the discussion board to get their check-in-the-box for posting once and maybe replying to a peer or two. What’s most valuable is if they continue to read through the threads as the discussion unfolds so they can benefit from the full picture. Consider ways of rewarding students for coming back–perhaps by having a delayed due date for commenting or by asking students to take turns synthesizing the week’s discussion. 

3. Provide Module Highlights

As Darby notes in Small Teaching Online, discussion board forums “can be invigorating, highly engaging, and motivating,” but they can also become “overwhelming for both students and instructors” (41). She recommends doing one or more of the following: 

  • Write or record a summary of important and interesting points that emerged in a module’s discussion.
  • Pin your summary to the top of the discussion board. 
  • Send a concluding announcement with highlights from the week’s discussion board. 
  • Praise students by highlighting snippets from the discussion board that were particularly well done.
  • Use these summaries to “reinforce the learning that happened within the module to help students discern what is most relevant and what they need to retain” from the conversation.

4. Consider Whether the Writing is Exploratory (and may not need a teacher response)

Depending on the purposes for your discussion board assignments, you may find that the kind of writing and thinking work students are doing there is sometimes exploratory in nature. As John Bean explains in Engaging Ideas, exploratory writing is typically informal–the kind of “thinking-on-paper writing we do to discover, develop, and clarify our own ideas” (120). This kind of writing, as Bean explains, “shouldn’t be graded on the criteria for formal essays” (142); you wouldn’t want to spend hours and hours responding, for example, to grammar errors on the discussion board because likely the main goals of the work there are thinking-on-the-page rather than polished, revised essay writing.

Bean suggests some options for evaluating exploratory writing based either on: 

  • students’ time on task (quantity of writing produced) or
  • students’ engagement and complexity of thinking (quality of the thought content)

This might mean using a Check/Plus/Minus or Five-Point scale for evaluating discussion board posts and interactions. There may be scenarios where the thinking work of exploratory writing is worth credit for completion, and, because the ideas are early in development and not fully formed, you wouldn’t want to spend hours correcting an in-progress stance.

The Take-Away: Strive to Balance Your Workload with Helping Students Learn Course Concepts

It’s not always possible (nor preferable) to respond to every single student’s discussion board post every single week. The suggestions here highlight how your time may be better spent synthesizing the key points from a discussion board in a short video or giving students completion credit for working towards a larger project.

aholmes • October 19, 2020

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