Katie Cox, Department of Anthropology

In late February 2020 – just before the COVID-19 pandemic prompted the shutdown of university campuses and shelter-in-place orders around the world – I had the opportunity to attend a Lilly Conference in San Diego. The Lilly Conference Series brings together university educators and administrators to present on the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL), with a focus on evidence-based teaching practices and active learning tools.

Dr. Angela Jenks and I presented preliminary findings and teaching tools developed through the Teaching Together Learning Community, a project we co-designed to support faculty and graduate student collaboration in the teaching of large undergraduate classes at UCI. (We recently made a similar presentation for an online brown-bag discussion, for which the recording and workshop materials can be found at tinyurl.com/TTLC2020).

One of my goals in attending the Lilly Conference was to learn new skills and strategies for virtual learning – and discussion boards in particular – in anticipation of an online class I plan to teach this summer. In the weeks since the conference, effective remote teaching has become a crucial concern for academics across campuses and disciplines, as higher education institutions have undertaken the unprecedented action to move a majority of their face-to-face classes online.

Discussion Boards: The Benefits

Despite the proliferation of a wide variety of educational software in recent years, the discussion board remains a trusty favorite in online and hybrid classes. Discussion boards are familiar to many teachers and students, require relatively low bandwidth, can be used synchronously or asynchronously, and are integrated in learning management systems such as Canvas. They can provide opportunities for student-to-student and student-to-teacher engagement, create opportunities for student reflection and expression, and provide teachers a written record to assess the successes and gaps in student learning. They are flexible and can be used for a wide variety of assignments and learning activities, from a basic Q&A board for course logistics to an in-depth group analysis of multimedia course content. 

… And the Drawbacks

On the other hand, discussion boards can be frustrating for teachers and students alike. They can feel like “busy work,” disconnected from other material or course objectives. They often elicit simplistic or repetitive comments from students. They can be challenging to grade objectively and efficiently. Based on what I learned at the Lilly Conference, here are three questions I am asking myself as I redesign my online class that may be applicable to others considering discussion boards for online teaching:

  • What are your learning goals? 

In the transition from face-to-face to remote teaching, discussion boards can seem like an obvious replacement for discussion sections or classroom conversation. Teachers may find it helpful to consider what specific objectives or activities the discussion boards are intended to replace. Are you aiming to facilitate student-to-student interaction? To engage with course readings? To assess students’ understanding of the content? To elicit written reflections?

  • Are discussion boards the best way to accomplish these goals?

When discussion boards feel tedious, repetitive, unnecessarily time-consuming, or irrelevant to other parts of the course, this can be due to a misalignment with your learning goals. Once you clarify your own objectives, you might consider other ways to meet these. For example, if you want to prompt discussion of course texts, consider online annotation tools like Perusall or Hypothesis, which can facilitate close reading and direct engagement with the text. If you want students to be able to see each other’s work, consider setting up peer-review activities for assignments in Canvas. If you want to create opportunities for team-based learning, students can use Google Docs or even email to carry out group assignments.

  • How can I make my discussion boards more effective?

If you’ve decided the benefits of using discussion boards in your course outweigh the drawbacks, consider how you can set them up to best meet your goals. At the Lilly Conference, I attended four different sessions on discussion boards, and the presenters’ use of these tools varied immensely. There were, however, some patterns I identified as “better practices” for making the most of them:

Don’t overuse them. Distribute thoughtful discussion board assignments throughout your course, instead of every week, to allow students to compose thoughtful responses and avoid seeing them as a perfunctory part of the class routine.

Keep discussion groups small. Reading the responses of dozens, if not hundreds, of students is overwhelming for students and for graders. Create groups of 6-12 students so they can better connect with their classmates and take part in meaningful conversation.

Provide concrete tasks to focus students’ effort and attention. Vague prompts elicit vague responses. Try to provide a short passage or video clip with specific questions to guide their analysis, or ask the group to come to a consensus on the best way to solve a given problem.

Ask students to generate supplementary content. To avoid the familiar issue of reading through tons of nearly-identical responses, try eliciting examples of a course concept from students through prompts like “Find a news article that uses war metaphors to describe COVID-19,” or “Take a picture of something that illustrates a breach of the nature/culture binary.”

Create a clear rubric, and share it with students. Confusion over expectations for discussion board assignments is common. Decide how you will evaluate responses (beyond “I know a good post when I see it”), and let your students know by providing a rubric in advance.

I am using these questions and strategies to guide me in designing better discussion boards, and I hope they are helpful to others too!


Larry Riggs and Sandra Hellyer-Riggs, Butler University and Indiana University — Purdue. “Online Strategies to Foster Engaged Reflection.” Presentation at the Lilly Conference on Teaching for Active and Engaged Learning, San Diego, CA. February 28, 2020.

Anton Tolman, et al., Utah Valley University. “Online Team-Based Learning: Building Social Presence for Success.” Presentation at the Lilly Conference on Teaching for Active and Engaged Learning, San Diego, CA. February 28, 2020.

Deborah Smith, Kennesaw State University. “Bored with Discussion Boards? Strategies for Improvement and Engagement” Presentation at the Lilly Conference on Teaching for Active and Engaged Learning, San Diego, CA. February 28, 2020.

David Kim, Indiana University East. “Interactive Online Discussions: Let Us Change the Way We Talk.” Presentation at the Lilly Conference on Teaching for Active and Engaged Learning, San Diego, CA. February 29, 2020.

Matthew Mahavongtrakul edited this post on April 21st, 2020.