• Resources
  • Blog
  • Why the Online Discussion Board Matters & How to Get Students Excited About It

Why the Online Discussion Board Matters & How to Get Students Excited About It

“If two people can fall in love online, they can learn American history online.”

online discussion board graphic

Lively discussion as well as student-to-student and small-group collaboration are among the hallmarks of face-to-face courses. But when it comes to learning online, some argue it’s difficult to replicate the value of these interactions. While a staple of strictly online courses for years, the online discussion board is finally finding traction in traditional and hybrid courses — leveraged as an asynchronous learning activity that proves to reinforce course concepts and engage students in deeper reflection outside the classroom.

In the words of Wichita State University’s manager of instructional design and access, Carolyn Speer: “If two people can fall in love online, they can learn American history online.”

Why Online Discussions Matter

Powering blended course work, the online discussion board is proving to be a powerful tool. Its use fosters a sense of community and encourages peer-to-peer interaction, which research demonstrates improves learner engagement and achievement.

Discussions can take the form of debate or reflective sharing — led by instructors or students themselves — giving all learners the opportunity to expand upon and clarify their understanding of key ideas. It moves beyond the more passive learning forms of reading, listening, and watching and allows the learner to actively engage with their peers and instructor.

Benefits of the Online Discussion Board

The value of this kind of online social interaction among students and with instructors should not be underestimated. There are several key advantages to asynchronous online discussions, including better academic outcomes and behaviors for students.

  • Online learning can be isolating or overwhelming for students, which can lead to decreased motivation and increased attrition. Discussion boards are a way to provide connection to others.
  • Asynchronous online discussions allow for wider participation and deeper, more thoughtful treatment of the topic. Students have time to think before responding and to edit their responses before sharing them with others, especially helpful for learning outside of face-to-face class time.
  • A good online discussion provides a collaborative learning experience that supports deeper understanding. Collaborative learning opportunities increase levels of student engagement and can help students improve their ability to transfer learning to new contexts.
  • Discussion boards are also critical for creating social presence and community online. Presence and community foster emotional connection — and these elements are key in improving engagement and, in turn, academic outcomes.

In fact, results from a landmark meta-analysis that looked across 213 studies involving more than 270,000 students found that social and emotional learning (SEL):

  • Increased students’ academic performance by 11 percentile points.
  • Increased students’ ability to manage stress and depression.
  • Improved students’ attitudes about themselves.

That said, not many institutions are able to fully realize these benefits yet because they continue to rely on the basic built-in discussion forums of learning management systems.

Download Online Discussion Best Practice Guide

The Problem with Today’s Online Discussion Board

Thankfully, online course discussion boards have evolved since their early days. For example, the ability for instructors to better organize discussion threads as well as the introduction of more modern social-based communication elements like mentions, have made them much more attractive. However, the limitations of many of the traditional discussion board tools remain.

Discussion forums, like those found in most LMSs, have become a standard way for students to interact with course content. These forums are typically text-based and can be challenging to extract deep engagement from students. They are also notoriously difficult for instructors to track and grade student participation. In fact, in a survey of over 350 educators, 61% said that they spend more than two hours each week attempting to grade discussions, noting their biggest challenge on this front was searching through threads from last-minute participation.

From a usability and visual design standpoint, the way an LMS presents discussions is challenging and unengaging. Text-heavy threads and conversations are tough to follow, and the LMS itself doesn’t do a great job of pushing students toward being better collaborators nor instructors toward being better facilitators.

From the student perspective, even well-meaning participants can struggle to have their voices heard during discussions. Students are limited in how they can respond, and the LMS generally lacks feedback mechanisms that can help students self-measure their own engagement quality or simply raise their hands for more help.

The origin of discussion forums in learning management systems — institution’s centralized course management system — makes sense. However, while the LMS has evolved significantly over the years and continues to be essential for supporting teaching & learning, they’re hard pressed to try and do it all. That’s why this area remains a gap — but that doesn’t mean your online discussions have to fall flat.

An Engaging online discussion board includes multimedia, polls, and ongoing interaction. An Engaging online discussion board includes multimedia, polls, and ongoing interaction.

How to Create Engaging Online Course Discussion Boards

A powerful tool for fueling meaningful interaction outside of the classroom, the online discussion board can be used to build the kind of student engagement that leads to improved learning outcomes. In fact, new research shows that participation in discussion forums is related to better course outcomes in both traditional courses and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).

In a recent pilot study conducted by WGU Labs, the College Innovation Network (CIN) found strong promise for increased course engagement and improved learning outcomes at Piedmont Community College, when different online discussion tools were used both in the classroom and asynchronously. These tools allowed instructors to pull on a broader set of discussion techniques to increase student-to-instructor and student-to-student interactions.

Adopt Open-Ended, Real-World, Emotion-Based Prompts

While researchers have found that higher-level questions won’t necessarily generate higher-level responses, they also observed that students associate discussion quality with active instructor participation, instructor feedback, and relevant questions that incorporate ideas (Christopher et al., 2010; Dallimore et al., 2010).

The opposite of right or wrong discussion prompts, thoughtful discussion questions are one of the most important factors in creating an engaging discussion board. Craft questions that give students the opportunity to form opinions, build on each other’s insights, as well as provide opportunity for dialogue and debate. For example, Copiah-Lincoln Community College has found success in using emotion-based and real-world applicable discussion prompts that speak to their students.

“We put great care into building our discussion prompts for online courses. We’ll use prompts that reference current events and social justice issues to elicit response from even the shyest of students. We find emotion-based responses come out naturally in the discussions,” said Dr. Amanda Hood, Director of eLearning for Copiah-Lincoln.

This approach gives students a safe space to articulate opinions, understand competing perspectives, and compose thoughtful responses — similar to a classroom setting. It’s also good practice for figuring out how to resolve conflict.

Set Expectations and Guide Peer Interaction

Be clear in communicating discussion board expectations to students. Outline your approach to online discussions in the course syllabus, and continue to reiterate it through course announcements. Make sure that students understand how much participation is expected of them, how their discussion work will be evaluated, and what constitutes high-quality posts.

One of the most effective ways to set expectations and provide clear guidance is through the use of multiple due dates or milestones. With milestones, instructors can specify a number of posts by a certain date as well as additional responses and reactions by another date. This guides students through discussions and keeps them on track, while simultaneously spurring ongoing interactions.

Milestones can also prompt students to revisit discussions, to see who responded to their posts, and to keep the conversation going — preventing the onslaught of rushed, last-minute posts for instructors to sift through.

Expand the Ways Students Can Respond

Text threads are so 2002. We don’t mean to be harsh, but text-based responses not only leave out students who prefer to express themselves through other media, but they’re also boring. When you consider that many of today’s students say they learn by doing, and 80% of today’s teens use YouTube and video to learn something new or improve skills that will help them prepare for the future, it’s a no-brainer that incorporating multimedia will better engage students.

In fact, West Virginia University experienced an increase in organic interaction among students in their online discussions when they expanded the ways in which students could express themselves.

“Students were submitting written responses, creating snippets of audio, making and sending videos, annotating others videos, as well as launching or responding to polls right from within our discussion boards. We got excited about easy-to-use tools that help instructors and students better engage with content and each other. It’s why we’re seeing so much more interaction,” said Beth Bailey, instructional designer at WVU.

When you’re more inclusive of how students learn, you’ll also see improvement in the quality of responses. “The options for how and in what medium to respond is allowing students to express themselves in their own ways, moving us from transactional to more meaningful exchanges,” shared Rick Bebout, technology specialist at WVU.

Implementing discussion boards that are more inclusive of different learning modalities has been effective in creating connection and community online, while building student engagement.

Create a Social Space Students

Fostering a space for students to create social presence, interact, and practice leadership is important for building engagement in online discussions.

Research from the University of Alabama shows that student participation increases when students facilitate online discussions. And in a Baran and Correia’s (2009) study of an online graduate course, researchers found that whether these peer-facilitation methods included highly organized facilitation or practice-oriented facilitation in asynchronous discussion, the methods kept students engaged with the material and relying on student-to-student interaction instead of just student-to-instructor interaction.

Consider varying the group size of discussions too. It creates opportunities for more students to lead discussions, and it also helps those students who are more comfortable sharing in small groups. But to create a space that can support these kinds of activities, you have to have the right tools.

For example, tools with a user experience that mimic familiar experiences often have the highest usability — think features like tagging/mentions, reactions, in-app and email notifications, and social media-like interfaces. If a student or instructor logs in and can connect the screen they’re viewing to something they are familiar with from their personal lives, they’re more likely to engage.

Don’t make technology one of the barriers to participation. Capabilities for creating smaller and student-led discussion groups, tagging instructors or other students, and flagging questions for more feedback all lead to increased student activity and engagement.

Make ALL OF IT Easier for Instructors

When instructors at Brown University started using LMS-integrated discussion tools to evaluate student participation in course discussion boards, it drastically reduced many of the time-consuming tasks often involved with assessing student work and allowed more time for instructors to provide constructive feedback.

As an example, when instructors assessed student participation using the standard LMS discussion board, they often had to dig through 60-page threads, as well as search through activities in other systems. While it worked, it meant additional hours and the manual task of entering grades in the LMS. With new tools, instructors easily saw students’ posts, alongside subsequent responses and contributions to the course, which provided a more holistic view of how well students were developing and mastering course material.

Similarly, at Fayetteville State University, instructors felt better equipped to evaluate participation in their online course discussions. With at-a-glance student participation dashboards, as well as auto-grading and integrated plagiarism detection, instructors saved valuable time — easily viewing and assessing student activity. The streamlined grading experience allowed instructors to focus their energy on instruction rather than course discussion management.

Use Online Discussion Board Analytics to your Advantage

Finally, one of the most important keys to improving student participation in online course discussions is being able to track engagement in those discussions. With student engagement insights built into your online discussions, instructors are able to see who, how, and when students are participating in their courses without ever leaving the LMS.

Instructors can see which students are struggling or need more attention and which topics worked best. Instructors have greater visibility into how students are progressing toward goals: which students are actively participating and which students are less active or have dropped off in engagement. Serving as an early-warning system, instructors can trigger outreach to specific students in order to coax them back into the discussion.


Today’s standard online course discussion boards are not built to deliver these kinds of benefits. Leveraging the power of technology, social-based learning, and analytics in ways that weren’t possible even five years ago, institutions now have an opportunity to implement online discussions that not only meet the needs of today’s students but actually excite them about learning.

Harmonize is a suite of digital discussion and collaboration tools that integrate seamlessly with your LMS to facilitate a more engaging online learning experience. It’s everything an instructor needs to increase student engagement online and promote inclusive learning, while saving time and eliminating manual tasks.

Related Articles