Making Online Discussion Boards Work

Ashley Weleschuk

April 2020


Three strategies to make discussion boards engaging for students

Learning is an inherently social process (Kerhwad, 2010). By building both formal and informal learning relationships, students can engage with material at a higher level (Bolliger & Shepherd, 2010). Whether they are working together to answer in-class questions or discussing studying for an upcoming exam, students benefit from making connections with one another.

Building peer-peer relationships is much harder in online courses, where students do not see one another in a physical classroom space (Abubakar & Adeshola, 2019, Bolliger & Shepherd, 2010, Dumford & Miller, 2018). Formal opportunities for collaboration become more important to prevent isolation and increase meaningful learning.  One common method of creating connections in online courses is through discussion boards, online forums, usually within a Learning Management System (such as D2L™), where students and instructors can create and comment on posts.

There are many different ways to use discussion boards to enhance collaborative learning in an online space. The type of discussions that work for a course depend on the learning outcomes for the course, the level and discipline of the students, and the other course assessments. In some courses, discussion board posts are the primary academic writing that students do, while in others, discussions are used to share progress on other, larger projects. Here are three strategies that can be used to make discussion boards engaging for students.  

Collaborative problem solving

To use this method, divide students into small groups, each with their own discussion board. Then, give them a complex problem to solve collaboratively (Weimer, 2011). If possible and appropriate, have students uncover new information mid-way through the exercise to get them to rethink and revise their solutions. Only grade groups on their final solution, so they can freely brainstorm and suggest ideas without fear of losing marks during the planning process. This method also reduces the amount of posts that the instructor must read (one post per group instead of several from each student). If participation is part of the assessment, it is striaghtforward to review each discussion board to ensure that each student contributed to the conversation.

Tips for facilitation:

  • Assign roles to each student with clear expectations such as researcher, note taker, compiler
  • Check in frequently to maintain contact as your students are working

Twitter-style discussions

Students and instructors can find continuous discussions with extensive posts overwhelming and exhausting. However, it is good practice to maintain discussions throughout the semester to keep students communicating and building relationships. Twitter-style discussions can help balance the workload without stopping discussions altogether. Instead of writing several paragraphs on a discussion topic, ask students to keep their posts and replies to a maximum of 140 (or 280) characters. Students find these discussions a refreshing break and a unique challenge. It is much easier for both students and instructors to read all of the posts and responses when they are this length.

Tips for facilitation:

  • Start things off with an example of a quality post
  • Be encouraging and provide students with specific feedback

Case study or controversy

Provide students with a controversial issue or case study to respond to in a group discussion. A good controversy does not have an obvious solution and has arguments for multiple perspectives (Orlando, 2014). When responding to a controversy or case study, ensure students know they must include reasoning or evidence to support the perspective or argument. Using case studies or questions without one correct answer can prevent discussions from becoming repetitive or stagnant. Pictures or videos may be useful in explaining the scenario. Encourage students to respond to differing perspectives in a constructive and respectful way, as this practice may be unfamiliar to them.

Tips for facilitation:

  • Pose reflective questions that have students consider alternate views during or after the discussion.
  • Provide examples and norms to encourage respectful and constructive dialogue

These are just a few ways that discussion boards can be used to help students interact and engage with one another. For more strategies and ideas, see Online Assessment in Higher Education, a new addition to the TI Guide Series.  

Related content

Tips for Fostering Effective Online Discussions


Online Discussion Board Guidelines



Abubakar, A.M., & Adeshola, I. (2019). Digital Exam and Assessments: A Riposte to Industry 4.0 In A. Elci, L.L. Beith, & A. Elci (Eds.). Handbook of Research on Faculty Development for Digital Teaching and Learning (pp. 245-263). Hershey PA: IGI Global

Bolliger, D.U., & Shepherd, C.E. (2010). Student perceptions of ePortfolio integration in online courses. Distance Education. 31(3), 295-314.

Dumford, A.D., & Miller, A.L. (2018). Online learning in higher education: Exploring advantages and disadvantages for engagement. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 30(3), 452-465.

Kehrwald, B. (2010) Being online: social presence as subjectivity in online learning. London Review of Education, 8 (1), 39-50.

Orlando, J. (2014). Online discussion questions that work. Retrieved from:

Weimer, M. (2011). Helping students develop problem-solving skills via online discussions.