The educational outcomes of discussion board forums

By Ken Nehrbass

Discussion boards are one of the best options for creating an online learning environment that is highly  responsive and that provides accountability for learning (see my post where I map fifteen types of student engagement, including discussion boards). Yet not all discussion forums are created equal. Certainly the design of the question, the interaction by the facilitator, and the frequency of interaction by peers (among other factors) all affect the quality of learning outcomes. This article discusses conceptual and empirical research that has explored the way asynchronous discussions impact learning outcomes.

Defining Online Discussion Boards

Ringler, et al. (2015) define online discussion boards as “opportunities for students to respond to an instructor-posted assignment, using supporting materials and direction in a time
controlled environment” (p. 15). The components of this definition include:

  1. Student interaction
  2. Direction from the instructor
  3. Supporting materials
  4. A due date

Presumably, any one of these components could be the weak link that diminishes the effectiveness of a discussion board: Is the instruction from the instructor clear? Are the supporting materials adequate?

Note that discussion boards are also called “asynchronous discussion boards” (Giacumo & Smith, 2013) or “asynchronous threaded discussion postings” (Mooney, Southard & Burton, 2014). Online DBs are a form of computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL) (Calvani, et al., 2010).

What are the advantages of DBs

There are several benefits of DBs. First, Ringler et al. (2015) used the term “opportunities to respond” (OTR) in the definition above to connect discussion boars to a wider academic on the benefits of  “active learning” (Haydon et al., 2012; MacSuga-Gage & Simonsen, 2015). Even though the instructor provides direction, the students take an active role in interpreting the instructional materials. Discussion boards, like other forms of active learning (labs, case studies, games, social media, role plays, debates, presentations) can increase learner engagement. For example, the Graduate School of Business in Thailand increased the level of  active learning activities each semester between 2000 and 2008. Despite initial skepticism (on the part of the students and faculty) regarding the value of active learning, self-reports of engagement increased drastically by 2008, compared to 2000 (Hallinger & Lu, 2013). Additionally, in a study that compared psychology students in active learning sections to passive learning sections (n=1091), those in active learning had higher self-reports of retention and engagement (Smith & Cardaciotto, 2011). Active learning seems to increase engagement and retention because it involves the construction of knowledge, rather than just the passive consumption of rote memorization (Koohang et al., 2016).

Also, participation in discussion boards was positively correlated with self-reports of performance and self-efficacy in a study of 223 UG sports management students (Mulvaney, 2020). Discussion boards, like other forms of active learning, promote social-emotional learning (SEL) as they require cooperation, and expose students to differing (even clashing) viewpoints (Calvani, et al., 2010).

What are the disadvantages of DBs?

Because DBs are a form of group work, they do run the risk of non-participation and off-topic posting (Guzdial & Turns, 2000). However, some of the topics I discuss below can mitigate those risks. For example, empirical studies below show that posing the right questions, sizing the groups well, and providing moderation in the threads can encourage frequent and robust discussions.

What kind of question should you ask?

You get what you ask for. If you only ask students to summarize, they will summarize. If you aim for synthesis and evaluation, you may get that level of work. For example, Giacumo et al.’s (2013) study of 216 students indicated that when students were prompted to interact at higher levels thinking, their posts match the higher levels of Bloom’s verbs. So, it’s important to craft questions that aim for the right level of knowledge. In a study of 38 courses, involving 791 students across 303 discussion boards (with an average of 8 discussion boards per course), Ringler et al.  (2015) found the following frequencies of various levels of Bloom’s verbs:

  • Knowledge: 0Comprehension: 45
  • Application: 107
  • Analysis: 95
  • Synthesis: 34
  • Evaluation: 22

Ringler et al. (2015) noted that questions with higher levels of knowledge was slightly correlated (r=.139) with more frequent responses from students. This suggests that prompting students to think critically can result in posts that are more robust and more frequent.

What about anonymous posts?

You may consider allowing the option in Blackboard for students to post anonymously.  Roberts & Raja-Kanagasabai’s (2013) study of 131 students showed students are more likely to post if they can do so anonymously– especially when it comes to controversial topics. Their study noted that frequent posting on discussion boards (where the students are identified) was correlated with a high self-efficacy. Therefore, professors may also spend some time helping students explore their self-efficacy, so they are better-equipped to engage in discussion boards.

How do you encourage students’ interaction with others?

Rather than giving instructions to “post one reply” or “respond to at least two other students,” consider providing students with more direction for their responses. Gernsbacher (n.d.) outlines four specific ways students can respond to their peers: compliment, comment, connect or question.

How many questions should you ask?

Surprisingly little has been written about “discussion fatigue.” Selhorst et al. (2017) measure forum fatigue in terms of dropout rates. They compared courses with two discussion boards a week to courses with just one, and determined that courses with one weekly, low-stakes forum also had the highest retention rate and highest course grades. Of course, retention and grades are only two of several factors that concern educators. The Selhorst (2017) study did not indicate whether asking fewer (rather than more) posts leads to better attainment of course objectives.

How many students should be in a discussion group?

LMS’s allow professors to break the class into smaller groups for more manageable discussion board threads. Bliss & Lawrence’s (2009) study of nearly 7000 posts (in 17 mathematics courses) indicated that groups of 2 to 5 participants were two to three times more likely to post frequently and to use “educationally valuable talk”[1] compared to students who were participating in whole-class discussions (pp. 30-32). The study also indicates that if students engage each other outside of the discussion board (over email, for example) the quality and quantity of interactions in the DB thread will be greater.

How do you grade discussion forums?

All assessments in asynchronous courses should have rubrics, so students know how they will be assessed. (Note that you can grade anonymous posts – the score will post to the correct student, even you don’t know who wrote that particular post).

Rovai (2006) supports the inclusion of the following areas within rubrics for Discussion Boards:

  1. Quantitative (number of interactions and time of interactions during the module);
  2. Content, questions that promote discussion;
  3. Collaboration (directing questions/comments to students versus the instructor);
  4. Tone; and
  5. Mechanics.

Should you use the “must post first” option?

Professors may choose an option in the LMS that restricts students from seeing other students’ posts until they post their own response to the prompt. Some educators believe this option can encourage original thinking. However, Morrison et al. (2012) found no significant increase in students’ level of critical thinking in “restricted” discussion boards, as compared to “unrestricted” ones.

How should professors be involved in discussion threads?

Ringler et al. (2015) noted a catch 22 when it comes to professor interaction: On the one hand, a professor’s response to a thread tends to end the discussion. Yet students’ satisfaction is correlated with a high degree of professors’ involvement in discussion boards. How can an instructor engage in discussion threads without killing the conversation? Ringler et al.’s (2015) summary of the literature on DBs contends that the professor’s role is to add subject matter expertise and moderate the discussion as the thread is at its peak, and then to summarize the discussion at the end.

What are some alternatives to Discussion boards?

VoiceThread has improved CSCL by allowing for asynchronous discussions that are video and voice based, rather than just text-based. These non-verbal cues enhance the discussion forum’s ability to foster collaborative learning (Dugartsyrenova & Sardenga, 2017).

Put it into practice

The research studies above should encourage you to be more mindful as you assign DB:

  1. Think about group size
  2. Disseminate your rubric
  3. Choose the right level of Bloom’s in your prompt
  4. Encourage out-of-class-interaction
  5. Consider using controversial prompts (and allow for anonymous posting)
  6. Experiment with other forms of CSCL like Voicethread

Bliss, C., & Lawrence, B. (2009). “Is the whole greater than the sum of its parts? A comparison of small group and whole class discussion board activity in online courses”. Journal Of Asynchronous Learning Networks, Vol.13, No.4, pp.25-39

Calvani, A., Fini, A., Molino, M. and Ranieri, M. (2010), Visualizing and monitoring effective interactions in online collaborative groups. British Journal of Educational Technology, 41: 213-226.

Dugartsyrenova, V. A., & Sardegna, V. G. (2017). Developing oral proficiency with VoiceThread: Learners’ strategic uses and views. ReCALL (Cambridge, England), 29(1), 59-79.

Gernsbacher (n.d.) “Five Tips for Improving Online Discussion Boards”

Giacumo, L. A., Wilhelmina, S., & Smith, N. (2013). Facilitation prompts and rubrics on higher-order thinking skill performance found in undergraduate asynchronous discussion boards. British Journal of Educational Technology, 44(5), 774-794. doi: 10.111/j.1467-8535.2012.01355x

Guzdial, M. and J. Turns. (2000). Effective discussion through a computer mediated anchored forum. Journal of the Learning Sciences 9(4): 437–469.

Koohang, A; Paliszkiewicz, J; Gołuchowski, J.;  & Nord, J. H. (2016). Active Learning for Knowledge Construction in E-Learning: A Replication Study, Journal of Computer Information Systems, 56:3, 238-243, DOI: 10.1080/08874417.2016.1153914

Hallinger, P., & Lu, J. (2013). Learner centered higher education in East Asia: assessing the effects on student engagement. The International Journal of Educational Management, 27(6), 594-612.

Haydon, T., MacSuga-Gage, A.S., Simonsen, B., & Hawkins, R. (2012). Opportunities to respond: A key component of effective instruction. Beyond Behavior, 22(1), 23-31.

MacSuga-Gage, A., & Simonsen, B. (2015). Examining the Effects of Teacher-Directed Opportunities to Respond on Student Outcomes: A Systematic Review of the Literature. Education & Treatment of Children, 38(2), 211-239.  

Mooney, M., Southard, S., & Burton, C. (2014). “Shifting from Obligatory Discourse to Rich Dialogue: Promoting Student Interaction in Asynchronous Threaded
Discussion Postings”. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, XVII.

Morrison, J. R., Watson, G. S., & Morrison, G. R. (2012). Comparison of restricted and traditional discussion boards on student critical thinking? The Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 13(3), 167-176.

Mulvaney, M. (2020). Discussion Groups and Multi-Formatted Content Delivery in an Online Module: Effect on Students’ Self-Efficacy. College Student Journal, 54(1), 88–105.

Ringler, I., Schubert, C., Deem, J., Flores, J., Friestad-Tate, J., & Lockwood, R. (2015). Improving the Asynchronous Online Learning Environment Using Discussion Boards. I-Manager’s Journal of Educational Technology, 12(1), 15-27.  

Rovai, A. (2006). “Facilitating Online Discussions Effectively”. Internet and Higher Education, 10, pp.77-88.

Selhorst, A. LO., Bao, M., Williams, L., 7 Klein, E. (2017). The effect of online discussion board frequency on student performance in adult learners. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 10(4). Retrieved from

Smith, C. V., & Cardaciotto, L. (2011). Is active learning like broccoli? Student perceptions of active learning in large lecture classes. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 11(1), 53-61.

Uzuner, S. (2007). Educationally valuable talk: A new concept for determining the quality of online conversations. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching 3(4): 400–410.

[1] The concept of Educationally valuable Talk (EVT) is defined in Uzuner (2007).

We’d love to hear from you: What hiccups do you run into with Discussion boards? How have you seen them work great?

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