Discussion Boards

Learning Objectives

  • Explain techniques for effective communication in discussion boards

Discussion Boards (or Forums)

Many college classes utilize discussion boards (or forums) on their learning management platforms (Blackboard, Canvas, etc.). You may or may not have engaged in this kind of writing before. Discussion boards serve to facilitate discussion, but the discussion occurs online and usually asynchronously (not at the same time). What that means is that a student or the professor may post a question or a prompt, and others respond later. Like any kind of writing, there is a format and protocol for writing on discussion boards.

  • Use a specific subject line. Using a phrase such as “response to Jacob” for your subject doesn’t tell other readers anything about the content of your response. Be brief, yet specific (e.g., Disagreement with Jacob about Literacy in Generation Z)
  • Keep to one main idea or topic per response. If you want to offer two different ideas, do separate posts.
  • Differentiate between starting a discussion thread and responding to someone else’s posting. Most discussion boards use what’s called a “threaded discussion,” which means that responses are indented under an initial posting. This type of indentation provides a visual cue to a reader, allowing him to rapidly distinguish the different discussion topics or threads.
  • Write informally but not sloppily. There is no need for fancy language or sentence structure but check your spelling before you finalize the posting. Most systems have a spell-check function. If you’re not a good typist, you may want to compose your response with a word processor and then paste or upload it into the discussion board. This is also a good idea in case there are technological issues, which can cause you to lose a post. If you create your post in a word-processing program, you can save a back-up copy of your post.
  • Do not dominate the discussion. There’s no need to respond to absolutely every posting from every participant. Respond selectively. Often, a course instructor will let you know how much online participation she expects.
  • Be polite, and apply the rules of etiquette. Use standard capitalization and punctuation; do not use all caps, as this is considered “shouting” online; use symbols sparingly to indicate tone when you think that words alone may not convey your meaning fully or accurately.
  • Remember that a lot of people may have access to your posts on a discussion board: other students, your instructor, college technical staff, administrators, etc. Write accordingly and professionally. Be sure to check with any guidelines from your professor about appropriate language use, and be thoughtful and generous when engaging in discussions of sensitive topics like race, religion, gender, and politics.

Try It

Content is even more important than conventions. Most college courses include discussions as a learning tool, a means for students to offer insights, test out new theories, and apply and share their ideas. Using the interaction below, review the following types of responses to understand what constitutes a good quality posting.

So, how do you write an excellent post in a college course?

  • Review the purpose of the discussion. Is there a particular question you’re expected to answer? Is the discussion space intended to be a place for you to ask questions? Make sure you’re responding as expected in the discussion space.
  • Work with the background reading required for the discussion. Annotate the text with your own ideas and questions as you read; summarize the main ideas to test your own understanding; stretch your understanding by applying concepts and theories to new contexts. Most discussions are designed as spaces to test out and debate ideas.
  • Realize that discussion is a give-and-take situation, a conversation. That means that you should participate frequently during discussions, offering your own ideas and responding to others. You can enter the conversation at different points, with ever-changing purposes and roles, but you need to be there on a consistent basis.
  • Remember discussion roles and functions. You can post initial ideas, respond to ideas, summarize ideas, point out similarities and differences or trends among ideas, ask questions, add examples, extend the conversation in different directions, and bring the conversation back “on track.”

Watch It

This video reviews effective strategies for participating in online discussion boards.

You can view the transcript for “DiscussionBoardsInReview” here (opens in new window).