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Handling Discussion Boards

The Discussion Board is one of the most important areas in an online course. This is where much of the "real" learning can take place and it is the one place that gives a sense of community to the class. But, handling the discussion board can easily become one of most difficult parts of online teaching. Facilitating discussion and dealing with problems can take much time. Below are some tips and hints to make your discussion boards more effective.


  • Create topic threads by week, module, etc. - create prompts that are on specific areas within these
  • Name each board or group of threads something appropriate to the content of the course: "Chapter One Questions," "Question on the Brain and Central Nervous System"
  • Include only one idea per prompt - not too long, not too many thoughts
  • State clear guidelines: length of posts (one paragraph), minimum number of posts (4 per week), types of content desired (use of text information, resources, etc.), your policy on personal posts ("My computer sound is not working," "I knew you in high school") grading, warnings (see sidebar)
  • Consider setting up smaller discussion groups (see Using Groups)
  • After a deadline has passed, lock threads so that students cannot add posts past the deadline (the posts will remain available for students to read and review)
  • To selectively delete many posts (say at the end of a course where you want to say your prompts, but eliminate student replies), use "Tree View" button at top right of Db screen and then click "Expand All" at the bottom of the screen


  • Thread heading prompts should clearly state the topic - although you can sometimes use a "tempt prompt" such as "Can you answer this?"
  • Use open-ended prompts that demand more than one answer (one-answer questions tend to kill threads or get repeated, identical student replies
  • Use controversial issues that integrate course information - play "devil's advocate" - avoid long debates with only one student, but rather open it up ("Would anyone care to comment on . . .?")
  • Use critical thinking or hypothetical, "suppose if" scenarios - more reflecting on than repeating information
  • Post a quotation and have students respond
  • Post questions like: "The most important thing I learned in this chapter is . . ." or "What confused me most about this section was . . ."
  • Use guest speakers (see Outside-In)
  • Role play - become a historical figure, a confused student, a professional - and invite questions and responses
  • Discuss posted papers by students, web links, current news on course-related topics
  • Draw from students' own life experiences
  • Do not allow students to create their own threads (or do anonymous posting) as these can get off point, misused, or create too many similar threads diluting responses
  • Ask students to list the most valuable student posts of the week and make comments


  • Demand posting immediately when a course begins - the first log on, the first week (use "Tell us something about yourself," "Why are you taking this class?," "Give advice to your fellow students about becoming a successful online student" - or assign students to give information about another student requiring student interaction)
  • Encourage particularly good posts ("Great ideas here," "Perfect understanding of the text") but do not overpraise or other students may become intimidated - give a "reward" such as a link, a connection to a future area in the course, a book resource
  • Don't be too negative, judgmental, contradictory, authoritarian, ridiculing - for poor posts, don't delete, but respond in a reply post that you will also reply privately in an email to that student (all student will see this reply and learn from it, yet you will not be directly embarrassing the student)
  • Restate or rephrase a student post clarifying their response ("Yes, you are saying that . . .", "Do you mean that . . .")
  • Think of Dbs as conversation - with a similar flow - look for connections between posts and point this out ("Your post is similar to Mary's on . . .")
  • So student's don't feel hurt or neglected, be clear in your syllabus and announcements that you will not respond to every post but that you will read all posts (it is impossible to respond to every post and this can set up an unreasonable expectation - students should learn from each other) - some suggest more replies at the beginning of the course (1:5), less towards the end (1:12)
  • Tell students they can voice their opinions, but they must back these up with course information
  • For too brief posts, ask for further explanation or clarification
  • For an unclear post, ask other students to explain what that student was saying
  • Reply in third person so that your post does not sound too personal and exclusionary, but use the student's name to make it sound friendly and inviting to others (instead of "You say that . . .," use "Mary states that . . .")
  • Don't respond with one or two words ("yes," "good," "OK," "thank you,") or that thread will die - these only work in F2F - you could privately email your thanks or praise for the thread
  • To make for more student-student interaction, specify the number of of posts (one half?) that must be replies or comments to another student's post, not just to the initial prompt of the instructor ( the instructor can direct students to do this with such statements as "Who would like to respond Jerome's post?")
  • Create dissonance by challenging students with difficult, critical thinking questioning - argue, but "agree to disagree" - bring out the complexity of issues, the multiple sides of an argument
  • If a thread gets off-topic, direct the thread back
  • Wait for students to respond first, before jumping into a thread - wait - but if a single post is left hanging for too long, add a comment ("dangling posts" can be negative in a Db)
  • Don't be afraid to end a thread ("This thread is now closed")
  • Log on as a fictitious ("pretend" or "fake") student (with a new new name) to boost discussion (warning: this is deceptive unless you want to warn students of this - or even play "spot the spy")
  • Read Improving the Use of Discussion Boards from Worcester Polytechnic Institute
  • Also be advised: much depends on the students you happen to have in your class (and this is a toss of the dice). Sometimes you get a very interactive group, sometimes not. And, while you can easily turn this around in a lecture class, it is much more difficult with online. So, the motto here is: don't always blame yourself.

Problems and Solutions:

  • For students posting mainly at the deadline:
    • create mid-week deadlines (postings split between 2 deadlines)
    • give more points for mid-week posts
    • give bonus points for the first 15 students posting
    • have a mid-week deadline for replies to original prompts, then a end-of-week deadline for follow-up replies to other student posts
    • demand three different days of posting per week (some experts suggest students log on 5x a week even if they post nothing
  • If you find the Bb Db layout too restricting or clumsy, you can set up a wiki instead (see Web 2.0)
  • To prevent too many personal stories, excessive debating, or casual posts:
    • specify how many posts should directly include (or use) specific course content
    • set limits on personal posts or opinions
    • have two sets of Dbs: one for textbook information, one for debating
    • direct students to your always-available, no points "Student Lounge" Db for a "student union like" atmosphere
  • Always warn students in your syllabus and orientation, that they should be: collegial to each other, polite and respectful - delete or edit objectionable posts and email the author (see Problem Students)
  • To eliminate very short posts, specify how long each should be for maximum credit (for example, at least four sentences; 200 words) or provide a few "quality posts" for students to model
  • If you allow students to remove or modify their published posts (see setting in Bb), you might have difficulty in tracking and grading ever changing posts
  • If some students overpost or monopolize discussion, email them privately and combine praise - "Help me out by reducing or delaying your posts so other can have a chance to answer as well as you"
  • Either allow or disallow text messaging lingo (LOL, BTW, IMHO) or emoticons such as :^) or :-) - but state your rule up front (and remember generation gaps on some of this)
  • To prevent problems before they escalate, monitor Dbs frequently
Last Updated: 04/07/2016

In Focus

Rubric adapted from an online book.
What to place in your syllabus regarding student posting.
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