Discussion Boards that Get Students Talking

Use Harmonize discussion boards to encourage more frequent and thoughtful engagement in online courses

Getting students to engage in online discussions might feel impossible…

Harmonize makes it a cinch.

Increase student engagement

Harmonize shows students and instructors everything that’s happening, at a glance. As a result, it’s easy for students to discover content and for instructors to monitor student engagement. Reactions and tagging make collaborating in online discussions feel easy and natural for students.

Keep students on the ball by providing more structure

Milestones, or multiple due dates, help students remember deadlines and engage now instead of at the last minute. Use them to set clear expectations, remind students of approaching due dates, and pull them back into the conversation.

Chat and polls

Increase interactions between students and instructors

Encourage more vibrant and frequent interactions by giving every student a pathway to participation. Use annotations to provide richer feedback and facilitate peer-to-peer learning. Instructors can also spark new conversations using chat, polls, and Q&A boards.

Everything you need to take your discussion boards to the next level.

Grid view

Gauge student engagement at a glance. The Harmonize layout makes it easy to see which conversations have the most engagement and what students are saying.

flag icon Milestones

Lend structure to your course experience. Milestones help students see what’s expected of them, and when, so they make substantive, on-time contributions.

rich multimedia icon Rich multimedia

Why should students only be able to post text? Harmonize supports video, images, audio, and embedded URLs, so students can finally express themselves.

Q&A Boards icon Q&A

Let students answer each others’ questions. Leave Q&A boards up all term to avoid repeated questions and help students share information in one place.

polls icon Annotations

Adding annotations to content promotes peer-to-peer learning, richer instructor feedback, and deeper engagement with course material.

reactions & tagging icon Tagging

Pull students into the conversation by tagging them directly. Students and instructors have the ability to tag anybody in the class.


Keep students on task and help them meet deadlines with notifications. Add a custom notification for the whole class or individual students.

chat bubble icon Chat

Using Harmonize Chat, instructors and students can communicate in real time. It’s easy for students to see which classmates are online and begin a new chat.


Use polls to gauge understanding, assess students, or review content. You can even use a poll to take attendance. Run a poll on its own or add it to any discussion.


Students can use emojis to respond to their classmates. Reactions lower the barrier to responding to peers and help more students contribute.

Online Discussion Board

The online discussion board, also known by various other names such as discussion forum, online group discussion forum, or online discussion forum for students, is a term for any online communication board where you can leave messages and expect to see responses to your messages. For instructors, the discussion board serves as an asynchronous online learning activity in fully online, blended, or hybrid courses. The online discussion board for students allows course participants to collaborate with others at their convenience by posting thoughts, comments or reactions and answering questions outside of a physical classroom.

Lively online discussion boards 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 — just one of the many tools for online education — is finally finding traction in both traditional and blended courses — leveraged as collaboration activities for students online that work to reinforce course concepts and engage students in deeper reflection outside the classroom.

The online discussion board is proving to be a powerful tool. It fosters a sense of community and encourages student-to-student interaction, which research demonstrates improves learner engagement and achievement. Discussion boards for students give all learners the opportunity to expand and clarify their understanding of key ideas. It moves beyond the passive learning forms of reading and listening and allows the learner to actively engage with their peers and instructor.

Benefits Of Online Discussion Boards

Online discussions can take the form of debate or reflective sharing — led by instructors or students themselves — giving all learners the opportunity to lead or contribute to course discussions. The value of this kind of asynchronous online learning activity among students and with instructors should not be underestimated. There are several key benefits of online discussion boards, including better academic outcomes and behaviors for students.

The benefits of online discussion forums for students are far ranging. 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 also 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 an opportunity for collaboration in online learning — which can sometimes be challenging to facilitate in a digital environment. Collaborative learning opportunities support deeper throat, increase student engagement in online learning, and can help students improve their ability to transfer learning to new contexts.

Finally, one of the most important advantages of online discussion forums is the connection it fosters. The online discussion board is 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):

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.

How To Make Online Discussions More Engaging

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. Based on that study, we’ll share here the best practices for online discussion boards and how to increase student engagement in online learning.

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 reflective questions.

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.

Copiah-Lincoln uses prompts that reference current events and social justice issues to elicit response from even the shyest of students. They find that emotion-based responses come out naturally in the discussions. 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 Student Interactions

Be clear in communicating expectations around online discussion activities 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

Another way for how to make online discussions more engaging is to expand how students can respond. 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 them from transactional to more meaningful exchanges.

Together, these student engagement strategies can help you make discussions more interesting and engaging for students.

Online Discussion Board Examples

There are many types of online discussion forums and examples of online discussion forums you can leverage. You can find relevant questions here and use these online discussion board examples to craft questions.

Just as important, you’ll want to create an interactive discussion. An interactive discussion example includes fostering a space for students to create social presence, interact, and practice leadership — doing that will help create a more interactive space.

For example, 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.

Other online discussion forum examples include 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.

Online Discussion Groups

There are many types of online discussion forums. The best platform for group discussion is one that is flexible enough to accommodate any size or way in which an instructor wants to facilitate discussions online.

For example, consider group sizes when it comes to an online group discussion forum. While large, full class discussions can help everyone get to know each other and expand exposure to a variety of perspectives, it can also be limiting. Students who are more naturally shy may not participate. That’s why it’s important to vary the size of discussions and use smaller break out groups or student-led discussion techniques.

An online group discussion forum like this 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 a variety of online discussion groups and rich conversation, you have to have the right tools. With the right tools, instructors can easily incorporate a wide range of collaborative activities, including facilitating discussions by section or groups, breaking students out into groups by topic, and supporting these student-led discussions. This approach to online collaboration encourages more student-to-student communication and continues to honor the asynchronous communication needs of most online learners.

Online Discussion Tools

Thankfully, the online discussion platform for students has evolved since their early LMS 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 challenges of many traditional online discussion tools remain.

The types of online discussion forums found in most LMSs have become a standard way for students to interact with course content. The problem is that they only give students one way — and one way only — to contribute. 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. The origin of an online discussion platform 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.

A suite of online discussion board tools, Harmonize integrates seamlessly with the LMS to facilitate a more engaging online learning experience. These tools focus attention on the activities that drive engagement, including:

These digital learning tools increase the quality and quantity of student-to-student, student-to-content, and student-to-instructor interactions and include:

Harmonize’s online discussion board includes everything an instructor needs to increase student engagement in online discussions and promote inclusive learning, while saving time and eliminating manual tasks.

Additional Resources

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