A Paradigm for Consequential Discussion Boards

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Daniel Lloyd, PhD

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The Problem

A few months ago, my daughter showed me a TikTok post of a student singing the following: “If I just wrote my own discussion post, then why do I gotta respond to two others?” As of this writing, the post has received more than half a million likes. The comments on it are as instructive as the presumption of the original post. They include the following:

“when they put a minimum word count on your replies too- like sis u want 100 words of me saying ‘i agree’ in different ways? okay”;

“I just want to know why they all agreed that it has to be one initial post and two responses”;

“Wow great point Johnny! I completely agree that responding to two others is tedious and a waste of time. Love how you used song to get ur point across”;

“Pro tip – always ask a question at the end of your reply. Automatic 100 they love it”;

“literally i always just end up responding with my initial post in slightly different words.”

Such examples were just a few among the nearly 5,000 comments.

The apparently experienced posters point to a reality that many instructors at many colleges and universities can relate to: though discussion boards are a significant part of many online classes, these assignments often function neither all that well nor seemingly as intended. Problems often begin with the questions. Sometimes boards include questions which tend to probe for personal responses rather than summarization, analysis, and integration of course material. This often leads to insular responses, eliciting student feelings about perceptions (sometimes highly underdeveloped or incorrect) of material. In other cases, poorly written questions begin and end with asking students to report on basic information, leaving students confused about possibilities for responses or unsure how not to just repeat what others have already said. Either of these kinds of questions in turn lead students to believe that a reiteration of their initial post or a word of encouragement to other posters is the assignment’s purpose.

The main issue (to be discussed below and at least in regard to the one initial and two response post form) is tied to the fact that students are often not expected to read the whole board. That students’ initial discussion posts can go unread by peers tends to demoralize them, revealing that such assignments are not really discussions. This leads more than a few students to characterize discussion boards as largely unproductive busy work. Related to this, discussion boards are also a significant environment for instructor demoralization. Many online instructors have come to the sad conclusion that their work is one of putting grades on assignments rather than engaging a class of students. This phenomenon is directly related to students not being required to read the whole board (or even the responses to their threads).

One Solution

First, this paradigm accepts the usefulness of the one initial post and two response post model in general. The following elements described below have been treated as an integrated whole successfully in courses. However, it is hoped that readers find either the paradigm itself worth experimenting with, or just parts. Lastly, it is important to point to the great usefulness of other course interaction structures. One might include, for example, a seminar-like hot seat board in which some students have greater and lesser roles in both leading and moderating particular boards. But because of the ubiquity of the one initial, two response model (as well as the deficiencies in which many are experiencing it), online interaction structures must be consistently evaluated for effectiveness and modified when shown to be ineffective.

One other note: although mention has been made above, and will be made below, about thinking of discussion boards as parallel to class time, this paradigm recognizes that there are important distinctions. First, discussion board posts are a different sort of work than class participation. For example, good grammar and writing skills should be considered a prerequisite for high (perhaps passing) grades in a board. Second, and even more importantly, discussion boards can also be seen as taking the place of not only discussion time in class, but professor summarization and presentation as well. Unlike the organized presentation and corresponding discussion exercises in a traditional setting, discussion boards might be thought of as simultaneously hitting on all topics in the various threads. For this reason, I often acknowledge directly to students (and they often say this directly to me) that an online class which covers material as well as a traditional class does is usually a more difficult experience. Being direct about the situation tends to be both a motivator and clarifier for students.

1. Everyone must read/watch all posts

Discussion boards must require students to view all posts by the end of the module. (When a module closes on Sunday night, I wait until Tuesday or Wednesday to make sure students have to had a chance read/watch any last minute posts. This also gives me the chance to respond on Monday morning to any outstanding questions raised at the end of student work or offer correctives to any misunderstood elements of the course material.) Although all the elements described below reflect important components to this overall paradigm, the requirement of reading/watching every post functions as the necessary foundation for the others to make sense. Students in a traditional setting are required to show up to class, with increasing penalties typical for absences. Although some participation is often a course requirement in a traditional setting, the central element of attendance is to make sure students have the opportunity to hear about the course material in the form of summarization and analysis through presentation and discussion. Everyone in a traditional class correctly recognizes that they can learn more deeply and clearly about a topic whether they themselves are asking questions, offering responses, or just listening. The same thinking should apply in an online discussion platform. Furthermore, the time commitment of reading/watching all posts typically is less than the average time commitment of attending class each week or each module.

On the positive side, the result of requiring all students to read all posts leads to a presumption about the importance of creatively engaging the material to better understand it. It is important to acknowledge that student misinterpretation or misunderstanding of course material is common. Therefore, this paradigm allows instructors to offer meaningful feedback communally. Relatedly, this paradigm enables instructors to avoid the unfortunate and demoralizing choice of either repeating the same correctives over and over again in different student threads on the one hand or, on the other, slipping into thinking that correction and guidance about material in the boards is unimportant to a class, since there is no expectation that students will read/watch instructor or peer response posts. It is also certainly not enough to require students to read/watch the responses just to their own threads. Such a requirement would be equivalent to an instructor in a traditional class allowing a student to wear noise cancelling ear muffs unless the instructor was speaking individually to that student. In both traditional and online settings, instructors and students must be able to presume that all summary and analysis of material is being seen and heard by everyone in the class.

2. Three questions per board about central topics

Create three central topics in the module about which to write three questions. Each question should include elements of both lower and higher cognitive tasks. Although three topics might seem to limit interaction with the material, a more open-ended approach to questions often produces even less diversity in module material coverage. There are two parts to an effective discussion question. The first concerns the elements required for the initial response, and the second concerns the elements required for responders.

In terms of the initial post, the discussion question should explicitly ask students to explain part of one of the large topics (one part not chosen by a peer). This lower order cognitive task asks for summarization. This should be seen as a central element in the board because it allows instructors to see areas of confusion in student understanding. The second element of the initial post should push the students to make an analytical or evaluative connection to another part of the module material (again, something not already discussed by a peer). This higher order cognitive task demonstrates creativity and gives students the opportunity to address wider relationships between information in a given module, and sometimes across modules if the opportunity calls for such questions.

The second part of a discussion question, the instructions for response posts, should include some element of summarization, but it should focus on higher order thinking. Responders should be tasked with making a connection to course material not already made by the initial poster or by other responders. Responders will need to briefly explain the material being connected, therefore making some lower order material part of each post. This system allows each thread to include summarization as well as analysis from all posters.

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3. Cap initial post responses to each question and require students to interact with each of the three board questions through the three posts

About a third of the class should be able to respond with an initial post to each of the three questions. Students must then respond to peers who chose for their initial post a question other than the one that they did. In other words, if a student selects question 2 for his initial post, then he must respond to peers who chose questions 1 and 3 for their initial posts. This system requires all students to interact with all three discussion board questions through their three required posts. It is rare in this system for any initial post to not receive responses, but the instructor at least should offer a response. Furthermore, this element makes sure that all students are interacting with the three main topics set out in the module and that they are reviewing all of the many finer details of the module material brought up by peers in their posts.

Coupled with the requirement that everyone read/watch every discussion post, both students and instructors will treat boards much more similarly to traditional class time and receive the benefit; although everyone does not participate in all conversations during class time, the requirement to stay informed of the exchanges is invaluable for content understanding and mastery. With all posts being watched/read by everyone and with all members of the class addressing the topics found in all three of the discussion questions, the board begins to feel much more like a traditional class, albeit asynchronously.

Another benefit to requiring all students to read/watch all posts and having students wrestle with the same three major topics covered in the three discussion questions is peer learning. A well-constructed set of questions which asks students to mine the course materials for links and connections helpful to analyzing a topic enables students to see models of summarization and analysis. Many schools are currently experimenting with forms of peer tutoring. This paradigm of discussion boards has this peer tutoring feature effective built into every board.

4. No quotations, always citations

This element restricts students from giving direct quotations of the course material. Again, courses must acknowledge that reading and material comprehension is a challenge for many students. Nevertheless, most students can find pertinent information to quote whether they understand the material or not. Requiring students to paraphrase and summarize (while always giving in-text citations for specific information in the course materials) builds several much needed skills simultaneously. This restriction highlights the fact that summarization skills demonstrate basic comprehension, giving students practice in critical reading, thinking, and writing skills.

This paradigm also achieves practice in the above-mentioned skills by requiring that each post written by a student include at least three in-text citations for specific information from the course material. First, by requiring students to cite the course materials, discussion boards become a centerpiece of practicing text-dependent thinking and writing skills. Second, the paradigm disallows students from using non-course material in the discussion boards. This paradigm adheres to the idea that discussion boards allow for the communal learning of the common material of the class. The introduction of outside sources in this format does not give students or instructors the chance to evaluate the comprehension and application of sources which were not commonly assigned. A clear understanding and application of the course material should remain the entirely unambiguous purpose of the discussion boards.

Finally, this rule helps to limit plagiarism. Instructors not only have to deal with students plagiarizing off internet sources, but many have also had the experience of students rewriting the essential content of others. First, questions which require that students choose elements of topics not chosen by other peers will inherently limit the second issue just stated. Second, asking students to summarize in their own words and give citations usually becomes a seemingly overburdening exercise for plagiarism. Instructors and students have a relatively easier time when there is a replication of ideas along with the same citation pages. I will, nevertheless, google selections of suspicious passages to find that plagiarism has occurred.

5. Require all discussion posts to fall within the 150-250 word count range

Three sufficiently challenging and complex discussion questions require that students be given the chance to develop ideas. With the requirements outlined in this paradigm for discussion boards, underdeveloped posts will be immediately recognizable as contributing little to the class’s understanding of the material.

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6. Make the grades higher stakes, but the “getting the information right” lower stakes

Make discussion board grades significant enough to be meaningful to final grades, but avoid treating discussion board work as finalized knowledge of course material. Nevertheless, grades for discussion boards should reflect the hard work students are putting into the creation of the boards. They should also reflect the central place the boards have for significant learning of the course material. This avoids the pitfall of seeing boards as mini essays in which students have already fully comprehended the material and are being graded on presentation. Rather, discussion boards should be seen as creating the habits of (and showing evidence of) strong critical reading, critical thinking, and critical writing. When students take the task of the discussion work seriously, the content clarity largely takes care of itself and improves student performance in other graded elements of the course, such as quizzes, exams, and papers. The above comments do not preclude treating good grammar and good writing in general as necessary expectations of the discussion board work.

7. Use video note technology if possible1

The use of video notes within threads (as opposed to only giving instructor written responses) is sometimes possible. It is a significant time saver for instructors who give in-depth feedback, and this factor should be considered in conjunction with the policy that instructors should interact at least once in every thread. Between saving time and showing a more personalized side to instruction, video notes can help connect members of the class together in ways much more similar to a traditional classroom. Encourage students to converse more freely and personally, both in written form and in video notes, as long as they complete the three rigorously designed required written posts by the end of the module.

Conclusion

In some ways, learning in an online format at a breadth and depth comparable to a traditional setting is simply more difficult. As more and more schools struggle with increasingly wider ranges of academic preparedness among students, online courses without well-developed discussion boards exacerbate problems which schools already have trouble addressing effectively. Well-constructed discussion boards create significantly engaged online classes by honing critical reading, writing, and thinking skills. The results also include increased student and instructor satisfaction and recognizably better educational communities.


About the Author

Daniel Lloyd

Dr. Daniel Lloyd is Associate Professor in the Philosophy, Theology, and Religion department at Saint Leo University. Two areas of his research are the enhancement of online learning outcomes as well as the effective building of online learning communities.


1Lloyd, Daniel. 2021. “‘Brothers (And Sister) Working at a Distance.’” The American Benedictine Review 72 (1): 14-26.

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