“I’ll see you on the discussion boards”: Tips for Engaging Students this Semester

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“If you want to get the most out of this unit, I’ll see you on the discussion boards.”

This is what Associate Professor Abelardo Pardo from the School of Electrical and Information Engineering tells his students. This statement suggests that these forums can provide students with opportunities in addition to those available in lectures, tutorials or labs. Online discussion forums can prompt students to consider how concepts and ideas from the classroom apply to phenomena observed outside university. They can be a space for students to clarify their understanding of lecture content with each other and with teachers and, for teachers, discussion forums can reduce the frequency of repeated administrative questions students ask as they’re learning how to learn (for example, “What’s the word count on this assignment?). Sometimes, however, the discussion board landscape for a unit of study may resemble a lonely desert road occasionally made lively by a rolling tumbleweed.

As part of a 2015 Educational Innovation Grant titled, Pushing the Boundaries of the Online Discussion Forum, we asked coordinators of large first year units of study to try some strategies for enhancing their (and their students’) use of online discussion forums and to share their success stories. Some practical strategies that you can use now (yes, in week 10!) are:

  • Post sample questions (similar to the exam or final assessment): time and again students’ behaviours remind us that “assessment drives learning”. Geoff Fripp from the University of Sydney Business School posted sample multiple choice questions (without answers) on his discussion forum ahead of the mid-semester exam. The students worked together to answer the question, sharing their rationale for the correct response and clarifying key concepts from the lectures. He also posted sample questions after the exam but before the results were released to students.
  • Let students know you’ll hold off replying until they do: discussion forums provide unique opportunities for peer-to-peer support but often students will wait for a teacher to reply to their questions. Hong-Dao Nguyen from the School of Life and Environmental Sciences tells her students that she won’t respond until another student has attempted a reply to the question posted. But make sure you let your students know this (so they don’t think you have forgotten them), and encourage their effort when they do post.
  • Enable anonymous posts: this is a function in Blackboard (and other forums such as Piazza) that allows students and staff to post anonymously. For Abelardo’s students, it takes the fear out of asking what might be perceived as a silly question.
  • Redirect students to the discussion forums: Maram Alakhras (Faculty of Health Sciences) noticed students persistently emailing her with their questions instead of using the discussion forums. She would reply to their emails saying that others might be interested in the answer to their question as well and asking them to post it on the discussion forums where she will respond to them.
  • Seed the discussion forums with frequently asked questions: as teachers, you know what your students tend to ask. If the forums are a little slow to start, Adam Bridgeman (in his former role as First Year Chemistry Coordinator) posts these questions in the discussion forums and answers them. If anonymous posts are enabled, he will sometimes post the questions anonymously, i.e. as a student, to demonstrate the function. Elin Lehnbom from the Faculty of Pharmacy also uses the anonymous posting function to reply to students’ questions as a student and endorses this response as a teacher.

For more suggestions on how you can use discussion forums in your unit, please see Teaching Insight 13, Strategies for Engaging Students in Online Discussions. The document summarises key strategies for promoting student use of online discussion forums that are supported by literature.

We would like to acknowledge and thank the Education Portfolio for funding this project and our participants who contributed their experiences and ideas. The team consists of Professor Adam Bridgeman, Dr Kathryn Bartimote-Aufflick, Dr Danny Liu, Dr Hong-Dao Nguyen, Associate Professor Abelardo Pardo, Associate Professor Charlotte Taylor and is led by Dr Melanie Keep.

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