Alternative Strategies for Discussion Boards

Discussion boards are the interaction core of many online courses and play a key role in community building, critical thinking, and assessment. In order to foster participation and information exchange between students, most instructors use discussion boards to ask thought-provoking and content-related questions. Students are asked to reflect, share, and respond with one another.

However, that traditional exchange of question and response can sometimes feel repetitive and give students the impression that they are only completing the discussions in order to “check a box.” It can be difficult for students to understand what’s in it for them when it comes to required online discussions. Implementing alternative strategies for discussion boards can help enhance your course from initial student introductions to end-of-semester reflections.

Alternative Types of Discussion Prompts

If you’ve been struggling to have authentic conversations with students on a discussion board, consider utilizing alternative types of discussion board prompts:

In application-based scenario discussions, students apply content from the course’s required readings and lectures to a scenario provided by the instructor.

For example, in a business course, students may be asked to “determine the price of a good given a particular market and the demand.” In order to answer that question, they’ll need to pull from the information provided in the course. In a healthcare course, perhaps students are asked to “review a psychologist’s notes from multiple sessions with a patient and then make a diagnosis or recommendation.” 

After answering the application-based scenario, students can be asked to evaluate each other’s responses thoughtfully, critique responses, or adopt another role in the scenario and consider how another role may respond. 

In a debate prompt in discussion boards, students adopt or are assigned specific stances on a topic, idea, event, or question. After students have researched their stance, they are asked to respond to the topic, idea, event, or question with evidence. 

Students are then asked to respond by adopting an opposing side. They can be prompted to ask questions, provide counter arguments and evidence, or concede specific points. 

This format is a great technique for  discussions with no correct answer. Consider debates in courses that are heavy in theory as students may adopt and debate different perspectives throughout the semester.

In correspondence drafts on discussion boards, students may be asked to author a workforce-relevant piece of correspondence. For example, in a business course, students could be asked to craft a memo or an email to a particular audience. In an education course, students could be asked to format a grant proposal.

After drafts are posted, ask students to critique each other’s work and provide feedback. Structured peer evaluation can be a powerful tool and gives students the opportunity to learn from one another’s experiences and creations.

If you are interested in utilizing this format, consider providing a clear and comprehensive rubric for the evaluation. Ask specific questions and guide students in how to create powerful feedback for their peers. 

In a research challenge discussion prompt, students are typically divided into small working groups or pairs and are then presented with a research question relevant to that week’s objectives. In pairs or small groups, students are asked to collect supporting outside content and craft a small bibliography of resources. You can also take this a step further by asking students to then post their own analysis.

After research and analysis are provided from other students, their peers can then respond by posing additional questions, verifying resources, providing addition research and context, and more. You decide how far you’d like each response to dig into the research. This practice is primarily for information sharing and can be a great way to kick off a large research project.

Another strategy for a research challenge is to ask students to select a topic and conduct some initial research. Then, ask them to post their findings as an “expert” and answer follow-up questions from other students. 

Show and tell as a discussion prompt can be a really fun way to have students introduce themselves to one another at the start of the semester. For this discussion, students select one item that is meaningful to them (i.e., picture of their family, a favorite coffee mug, a pillow, etc) or select an item that is meaningful to the course or topic you are discussing. Students then create a post sharing a photo of the item and explaining why the item is meaningful to them. For a more tech-enabled experience, consider asking students to post a video introduction of the item!

Students are asked to respond to peers with whom they have identified connections with based on the show-and-tell item. For example, a student who shares a photo of a family vacation to Colorado could have other students who have traveled there share about their experience. 

In this fun discussion prompt, students are asked to post to a discussion via text, video, or audio clip describing three facts about themselves or about a concept in the course. Two of those facts are true. One of those facts is a lie.  

Other students respond to the original poster guessing which fact is a lie based on context clues or their own research.

If you choose to use this prompt style, consider modeling this behavior by participating in the discussion and including your own truths and lies. You can provide a special challenge to students as they can work as a team to guess the truths and lie of their instructor in their original or response posts. 

For any discussion type, consider amplifying the experience with audio or video content. Rather than just communicating through writing, students can record themselves and post to a discussion in order to work on oral skills. This, combined with an authentic task, can help make the assignment practical and meaningful. For example, students could post a video response focused on:

  • A small speech
  • A business pitch
  • A literature review
  • A historical analysis

Peer evaluations can be completed by students responding to one another, or students can be assigned various topics and pose questions follow-ups!

Varying the Size of Your Discussion

No matter the prompt type selected, consider varying the types of discussions used in your course by varying the the size of the discussion.

  • Pairs: Have students complete a small discussion, research project, or debate in pairs before delivering their findings in a write-up to you or another discussion that involves all students in the course.
  • Small Groups: Assign students to small groups or allow them to select small groups based on topics or interests. Have each small group discuss the same prompt and rank their findings as a class, or have each small group discuss a different prompt and summarize their findings and experiences for the rest of their classmates.
  • Fishbowls: Have small groups of students discuss a prompt in a public forum. The rest of the course is asked to observe their conversation but not participate. This can be a fun model for students to dig more deeply into a topic or idea they are passionate about while others learn from their experiences.
  • Entire Course: Ask all students to complete the same prompt or topic and respond in the same way. This is a great option for introductory discussion boards or reflections.

Varying the size of the discussion can help alleviate perceived redundancies in your curriculum and can also help students stay more focused on their own assigned task.

Revising Existing Prompts

As you revise your current discussion prompts, consider how students have replied and engaged with each other in the past. Discussions should only be included in the course when there is a discussion to be had. Consider:

  • Does the prompt provided naturally lead students to discuss an idea?
  • Can the question be answered with a yes or no?
  • Is this discussion relevant to research practices, workforce experiences, or authentic learning?
  • Do my students have the structure in place to answer initial prompts and provide clear follow-up responses?

The answers to these questions will help guide your revisions. If there is no discussion to be had or if students are answering with a “yes” or a “no,” perhaps a full prompt overhaul is necessary. If students are discussing things well but are not providing good responses, perhaps consider providing clearer instructions or models of high-quality responses. 


Responses to Peers

While the initial prompt is the heart of the discussion, it is also important to guide students’ responses to their peers so that conversations are more meaningful than just a “yes, I agree!”  Consider the difference between these two prompts: 

“List three critical factors in team building.” 


“Based on the provided resources this module, what do you see as the most critical element in team building?  Please defend your position by providing support from at least one resource we examined. Offer an example where you saw this critical element of team building take place in your own life or career.

After reading your classmates’ responses, select one response whose position you disagree with and politely and professionally argue your opinion using supporting evidence from an additional source that was not provided in this course.” 

While the first prompt may give us some interesting insights into what the students are learning, it may be better suited for a quiz or exam question. The second prompt asks students to draw on the evidence from the course, their own personal experience, and respond to other students in a clear and concise way. 

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