Fostering Engagement through Online Discussion

Fostering Engagement through Online Discussion


Discussion boards are a gateway to rapport and engagement in an online learning environment. The asynchronous nature of discussion boards can offer benefits to students, giving them more time to collect and outline their thoughts and less competition to find space to share their reactions and comments on peers' posts. But to maximize discussion boards, we as instructors must model that they are a site for engagement rather than a repository for ideas that are left behind when the assignment is complete. Here are five tips to support engaging online discussion, from Boettcher and Conrad's (2016) ​The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips​.

Tip 1: Ask "good" questions. But first, lay the groundwork. In addition to discussion prompts, share with students why they are participating in the assignment and demonstrate your own participation. Then, build questions that are open-ended and give space for exploration. Highlight where that openness can take them. Are they expected to make connections to course content? Make an argument? Compare and contrast? To guide students, consider the three-part question structure Boettcher and Conrad (2016) highlight. Ask students to:

  • share what they think,
  • unpack why they think it and examine what information they are drawing on, and
  • share what information they need to move forward.

Tip 2: Use the right tool for the question. As with in-class discussion, we want to facilitate, not lead. Resist the urge to ping-pong conversation by interjecting after each student's post. You will need to use less of this nudging if you combine the right tool with the right question. Discussion boards are ideal for open-ended questions, while other functions within Canvas can support alternate modes of engagement, from group work (like Piazza) to checking recall (like quizzes or Quick Check). Rightness of fit for the tool is also informed by our expectations for the activity. If asking more substantive and complex questions, give students sufficient space to respond by limiting questions to one or two per week.

Tip 3: Offer continual feedback. Feedback can convey a sense of support and presence, guide skill development, and guide metacognitive competencies​ (Boettcher and Conrad 2016). Which role feedback plays may vary over the course of a week or module. While early feedback may acknowledge students' efforts and show your presence in discussion, mid-week feedback can help correct course and highlight emergent themes. And don't underestimate the value of closing discussion with wrap-ups.

Tip 4: Wrap up discussion. Bringing closure to the conversation reminds students that you are in the discussion with them and encourages engagement, particularly when your wrap-up content shares key insight that students generated and demonstrates their learning or growth. Discussion wraps also offer an opportunity to highlight the takeaways students will need to complete future work and fill gaps in conversation.

Tip 5: Grade and give credit appropriately. While feedback is ongoing to support social presence and engagement, grading may assess students' participation, critical thinking, or comprehension​. Just as with asking a "good" question, good assessment begins with determining the goal of discussion and making this clear to students. Support student success and help think through the goals and assessment of your activities by developing rubrics. For an overview of discussion rubrics and a range of styles, visit the Teaching Online Pedagogical Repository's Discussion Rubrics resource or this adaptable model from Ed Tech Leaders Online.

For more in-depth coverage of these tips, visit the CITL Kaltura page for a recording of the webinar Fostering Engagement in Online Discussion, or join us for related webinars over the summer.


This guide was originally published as a CITL Blog post by Megan Betz and Shannon Sipes.