Be Active and a Model Exemplar
Students will participate as much as they perceive your participation. Be an active member of the discussion board — either as a commenter, coach, facilitator or moderator — and don’t underestimate the power of the @.
Tagging students to get their thoughts is a powerful and easy way to keep discussions active. Consider using tags for the quieter, or slowly disengaging students which you can identify and track using Engagement Insights, to pull them into the conversation.
With each post to an online course discussion board, remember that your response to a student is visible to the whole class—and your words will remain alive for the entirety of the course. Always have your postings reflect a professional tone, be sure any facts and course information are in sync with what is included in the course (including digital or textbook materials and other class resources), and use your postings to reinforce important course lessons. And just to hammer it home, be on the side of safety and assume anything you post to your online discussion board (good or bad!) could go viral…meaning, screenshots could be shared with anyone, anywhere, on any platform.
Make it Meaningful, Interactive or Use Humor When Appropriate
While it’s important to remain professional and academic in discussions, that doesn’t mean your responses have to be stale or cookie cutter. In fact, don’t be afraid to let personality and humor shine through. Because we are using written words, the facial expressions, tone, and gestures that make our spoken words take on defined meanings are missing in the online classroom. Certainly, punctuation serves this function to some extent—but injecting large doses of personality, some occasional humor, and implementing multimedia like images and videos of yourself can help engage the class, creates a stronger student-to-instructor rapport, and helps students stay more involved in the discussion.
Just as you would encourage students to post using a variety of mediums, your posts should follow suit. Use videos, audio, images, and text to share your feedback because multimedia in discussions not only enlivens a potentially dull conversation, but it also engages many students in the mediums they prefer most.
Figure out ways to use examples or experiences from your own life when responding. Students enjoy peeking into the lives of their instructors. Offering bits and pieces of your life outside of class will certainly make you more relatable and approachable—just be sure your examples truly underscore and reinforce course concepts.
Assessment: Use a Question, Affirmation or Feedback
Tone and medium aside, one major advantage of online education is that the use of online course discussion boards have the power to pull shy students out of their shell — in ways they wouldn’t in a physical classroom. To do this, you should respond to a student’s post in at least one of three ways: with a follow-up question, affirmation or praise, or other feedback.
To mimic face-to-face learning experiences online, be sure to respond frequently to your students, whether it’s private or public, and asking a follow-up question to a student’s post will encourage that student to dig deeper on the topic. Here are some examples:
- How do you believe that this discussion topic is related to your professional goals? I appreciate your reflection.
- Apply what you learned from this activity to some aspect of your life and share your findings with our colleagues. Thanks!
- It is clear you are making deep connections to the material presented here. If you were to suggest resources for someone interested in learning more about this topic, what would you suggest?
- Were you able to locate any peer-reviewed research to support your answer to this discussion prompt? If so, what source(s) did you find most valuable?
- If we wanted to extend this discussion beyond what has been shared so far, what additional questions could we ask?
Many of these kinds of responses draw on the theory of Transformational Learning, whereby learners who are getting new information are also evaluating their past ideas and understanding, and are shifting their very worldview as they obtain new information and through critical reflection. In addition to reinforcing learning, doing this shows that you value their contributions and allows you to further identify students who may not be grasping concepts fully. You can also highlight the good points your students have made. Your affirmation encourages students to post more often and stay engaged. Here are three example responses that would effectively engage a student and encourage them to continue sharing their thoughts.
While discussion rubrics and auto-grading for participation can help streamline the grading process, it’s important to provide additional feedback to students that the other students don’t see. This feedback might be a simple compliment on a good post, or it might be more in-depth coaching. Save this kind of qualitative feedback for students who have gone above and beyond expectations or when students are struggling.
Reminder…This is formative assessment. It may take students time to meet your expectations for discussion posts. Be sure your feedback clearly states areas to improve or what you’d like to see next time, and make certain you give students enough time to implement those changes.
It’s also tempting to respond only to early posters. It could be helpful to keep a running tally of who you have responded to each week, so that you’re sure to interact with everyone throughout the course and on an ongoing basis.
Ask Appropriate Questions & Keep the Conversation Going
An online discussion board is meant to power conversations, where each post builds on the previous comment, rather than be a dead end. Responding to posts gives you the opportunity to expand the conversation. Reference course materials, class lectures, or relate to your own life experiences when appropriate. Whether in the initial discussion board prompt or in follow up responses, ask thoughtful questions.
These questions can be exploratory, challenging assumptions, action-based questions, cause-and-effect questions, or hypotheticals. And once a student responds to that question, you can continue the conversation constructively. Here are three main ways to respond to a post:
- “No, because…”
- “Yes, and…”
- “Yes, but…”
Respectfully Disagreeing – “No, because…”
It’s okay to respectfully disagree with someone’s post, but it’s important to show that you appreciate the post. Be sure not to attack the writer, and avoid using emotional appeals.
Instead, focus on the logic:Do the causes and effects as explained relate to one another? Does one claim necessarily follow another? Are there flaws in the argument? Ask questions to better understand the logic. Be sure to share other resources for the student to explore.
Agreeing With and Expanding Upon a Post – “Yes, and…”
Let’s say you agree with the writer’s main idea, and you want to add more to it. Take the original opinion or view that your student expresses and consider other angles. Are there factors about this topic that the student hasn’t mentioned? Provide insight that gives a clearer picture or helps build the discussion.
Agreeing With and Expanding Upon a Post – “Yes, but…”
This is very similar to “Yes, and…” with the exception that you can play the “devil’s advocate” here, pointing out things that don’t quite mesh with the view or opinion. You agree in general, but you’re pointing out problems with the view or statement that make it harder to defend. This is a great way to open up students to alternative perspectives, and help them become more comfortable with the idea that many questions don’t have right or wrong answers.
Don’t Reinvent the Wheel Every Term
Time is valuable for any instructor, so you might be thinking it’s impossible to come up with clever, fun, or new questions, affirmations or feedback for every student in your course each term. And you’d be right, but the good news is that you don’t have to. A pro tip shared in Teaching Online With Errol: Creating Effective Responses to Student Discussion Postings, always be sure to create a bank of the best responses that you post for reuse in future classes. As you respond to student discussion postings, you will find that some of your substantive responses are very effective—meaning, they spur additional research, insights, or a change of opinion — that is, they encouraged continued engagement. Bank those responses and reuse them with subtle tweaks the next time you offer this course.
Set Expectations for Students
Remember, for some students, your course might be their first online class. As the discussion facilitator, part of the instructor’s role is to coach students in how to compose and share their responses to peers. Web etiquette (or netiquette) is an important aspect of online communication, since following netiquette rules can encourage the sharing of diverse ideas in a respectful and engaging learning environment.
In addition, just as you carefully prepare your own responses to students’ posts, encourage students to do the same. Share with them the constructive approach to disagreeing and agreeing to keep the conversation going.
Sharing a short but impactful list of online discussion board rules for engagement — here is an example from the University of Waterloo — and how you expect students to respond to their classmates can diminish the chance of offending others, remind students that they are communicating with real people rather than just a screen, and spur more meaningful student responses.
When it comes to the content of their discussion posts, you can also set expectations. Use a rubric, post a video with instruction, or provide examples of student submissions that meet the mark and explain why. This kind of prep work ensures students are set up for success, and can make your job of assessing posts much more meaningful.
Solicit Feedback from Students
Need a little fuel to get students talking? Don’t be afraid to periodically ask your students what’s good or bad about a particular discussion. How is it working/or not working for them? What could be improved? Use polls when you want feedback in real-time during the discussion or after the discussion is over, or consider using surveys and Q&A forums to collect feedback. When you ask, be sure to acknowledge and act on their comments if needed.
This approach, while not specific to a particular discussion, is a technique that helps students feel like an active player in the course and lets them know they have a voice — both of which will motivate them to continue participating. For a quick list of reminders that promote student learning while reducing instructor workload during online discussions, check out these tips from the Online Learning Consortium.