Discussion Board Labs: Innovative Strategy to Increase FYE Student Engagement Through Active Faculty Reflection

Concurrent Session 2
Streamed Session

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Brief Abstract

First Year Experience (FYE) faculty seek opportunities to increase student engagement in discussion board threads. FYE students hesitate to participate due to different classroom fears. This session shares the active faculty reflection process that resulted in the implementation of innovative strategies, which demonstrated increased discussion board engagement in FYE courses. 


Dr. Marva Brewington is an Assistant Professor in the School of General Education at American Intercontinental University (AIU) where her primary support is providing instructional methods for AIU’s foundational course – Academic and Professional Success. She is the 2020 recipient of the AIU Instructor Excellence Award in the category of Student Success. Dr. Marva holds a Ph.D. in Human Services with a Concentration in Counseling Studies from Capella University. She has presented in the area of improving and enhancing the student experience through innovative approaches to pedagogical methods. She has also co-authored and published in the area of student engagement with regards to the first-year-experience (FYE) student; and also in the area of academic progress with regards to the middle school student. Through her various educational career professions, she has developed a student-centered mindset where the student experience will always remain her top priority.
Dr. Anna Selga currently serves as the Online Program Chair for New Student Experience at American InterContinental University. She holds an EdD in Higher Education Leadership from Trident University International. As a leader and manager, Anna has experience in training, coaching and development spanning 15 years that focused on staff development and operations management, along with more than 15 years of experience in higher education leadership, operations and management. Her higher education leadership career has a distinct focus on fostering interdepartmental collaboration and data driven decision making to support student success, student retention and faculty development– both in online and ground campuses serving traditional and post-traditional learners. Dr. Selga held the following positions in higher education: Lecturer, Program Chair, Director of Education, Dean of Academic Affairs, and Campus Director.

Extended Abstract

Faculty, especially those teaching FYE courses, observe lower discussion board engagement in their classes. Student participation is sparse and sporadic, as reflected by incomplete posts. In the process, different students tend to emerge, posing a threat to student success:

  • The invisible student – non-contributor
  • The copycat student – plagiarizer
  • The purposeless student – off-topic writer
  • The nickel-and-dime student – shallow writer

Unfortunately, these emerging students contribute to low student engagement if the issue is not addressed. Student engagement within the first year is important and essential to the first year experience. Universities with large first-year class sizes are challenged with maintaining student engagement (Ahlfeldt, Mehta, & Sellnow, 2005), and research further links a lack of engagement to students who feel disconnected and without a true purpose (Lizzio, 2006).  Carini, Kuh & Klein (2006) suggest that there is a definite linkage between student achievement and student engagement as well as a lower percentage of students completing their course studies (Laird, Chen & Kuh, 2008).  Furthermore, students who are not fully engaged are more inclined to withdraw from their university (Kuh et al., 2008). 

How can faculty get ahead of this curve and affect a greater level of engagement? Studies reveal that pedagogical methods that support engagement are critical to a first year student’s overall level of success (Kift & Field, 2009).  Discussion board threads can provide faculty with an opportunity to assess the needs of their students and adapt pedagogical methods that would effectively meet this need, thus increasing both engagement and academic progress (Waheed, 2017).

However, faculty members are challenged with student engagement in discussion board threads because students bring to the classroom different challenges and fears about writing.  Bandura’s Self-efficacy theory suggests that a person’s level of motivation is often indirectly tied into self-constructed beliefs about their ability to perform a specific task or reach a specific goal (Seifert & Sutton, 2012). Based on this theory, we can infer that a lack of confidence causes fear and constraint. Therefore, if a student believes he can’t, then he won’t; but if he believes he can, then he will.

What faculty strategies can alleviate the fear factor and drive student success?  Increased faculty activity in the classroom is assumed to correlate with high student engagement, regardless if quality proved futile. In order to achieve increased success, faculty must have the flexibility to think outside the box and be empowered to innovate where needed. When faculty are focused on meeting items on a list, this pushes the focus away from student success. Essentially, faculty members are less able to meet the students where they are nor are they effectively able to determine which students need the most attention. This only leads to a downward spiral where some students are left behind. How can we alter our approach for the benefit of our students?

Our institution determined that a different direction was needed to have a greater impact on our students’ success. What did we do, and how did our institution drive student success? Our university shifted away from the traditional (prescriptive) faculty expectations where faculty were responsible for specific number of actions over specific timeframes to a model that was more student-centered and provided greater autonomy.

Through the implementation of an Instructional Tenets Model, our university discovered that faculty had a greater opportunity of providing pedagogical methods that would help students thrive in the online classroom. The impact of this model equated to better engagement and a greater measure of student success through a sincere focus on the following five tenets:

  • Being Present (Engage)
  • Facilitate Learning (Teach)
  • Connect with Students (Communication)
  • Instructional Agility (Adapt)
  • Innovate (Create)

The introduction of the instructional tenets challenged the faculty as they prepared for classes.  The tenets encouraged faculty to reflect on the student experience and consider a classroom challenge that could be addressed through tenet application.

A FYE faculty member leveraged student surveys and outcomes to draw conclusions on the poor discussion board engagement and determined that this was a reflection of student fears and uncertainty.  After conducting an intentional classroom assessment, the faculty member brainstormed ways to address students’ hesitation and fears through the creation of Discussion Board Labs.

Using a proactive approach, Discussion Board Labs were created to develop a sense of community, provide a low risk of engagement, a safe environment, and to provide real-time guidance, feedback, and encouragement to the students. Within the first week of the course, the faculty hosted three different lab sessions. The grading rubric components provided the framework and the outline for each session. This provided student guidance regarding the key elements of each deliverable, while creating interactivity in the session through just-in-time pedagogical methods. 

The labs were designed to assist students with learning the art of Discussion Board writing, while adapting a modeling approach through specific examples. The goal was to scaffold student skills and to build a strong foundation that students could apply in future units and courses. Observable outcomes were increased engagement, consistent and stable discussion board participation throughout the course, improved quality of posts, improved partnership with faculty, increased review and integration of feedback. Utilizing pre, post and ongoing assessments of these outcomes, allowed the faculty member to reflect upon the level of effectiveness and to determine if there were any improvements needed to the process.


Session Goals:

In this education session, attendees will gain knowledge on engagement strategies in the discussion board. Attendees will also be able to describe and apply the active faculty reflection process on other classroom components.  Implementing these strategies will increase student engagement, boost student confidence, improve assignment quality and support student success.



Attendees will be asked to apply the active faculty reflection process to a common classroom challenge (i.e. low live session attendance). Presenters will facilitate the activity and encourage discussion based on the following questions:

  1. What do you see in the classroom? What indicators point to the challenge? (Be Present)
  2. What intervention should occur? (Innovate)
  3. When will the intervention be introduced? (Facilitate Learning, Instructional Agility, Connect with Students)
  4. How (methodology)? (Facilitate Learning, Instructional Agility, Connect with Students)
  5. What measurement outcomes will determine the impact of the strategy?
  6. What is the reflective process? (Innovate)



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Carini, R., Kuh, G., & Klein, S. 2006. Student engagement and student learning: Testing the linkages. Research i
     in Higher Education, 47, 1-32. doi: 10.1007/s11162-005-8150- 9

Kift, S. M. & Field, R. M. (2009) Intentional first year curriculum design as a means of facilitating student
     engagement: some exemplars. In 12th Pacific Rim First Year in Higher Education Conference: Preparing for
     Tomorrow Today: The First Year Experience as Foundation
, 2009-06-29 - 2009-07-01.         

Kuh, G., Cruce, T., Shoup, R., Kinzie, J. & Gonyea, R. (2008). Unmasking the effects of student engagement on
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Laird, T., Chen, D., & Kuh, G. (2008). Classroom practices at institutions with higher-thanexpected persistence
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Lizzio, A. (2006). Fives Senses of Success: Designing effective orientation and engagement processes.
     Unpublished manuscript, Griffith University.

Lodge, J. (2012). Implementing a Principal Tutor to increase student engagement and retention within the first
     year of a professional program. The International Journal of the First Year in Higher Education, 3(1). 9-20.
     doi: 10.5204/intjfyhe.v3i1.101

Seifert, K., & Sutton, R. (2012). Educational Psychology (Vol. 3). Saylor Foundation.

Waheed, N. (2017). Effects of an online discussion forum on student engagement and learning in a first year
     undergraduate nursing unit. 5th Annual Worldwide Nursing Conference. doi: 10.5176/2315-4330_WNC17.35

Willans, J., & Seary, K. (2018). “Why did we lose them and what could we have done”? Student Success, 9(1),
     47-60. http://dx.doi.org/10.5204/ssj.v9i1.432