The discussion board can easily become a disappointing component of an online course, both for students and for their instructor. Students who engage with the instructor’s prompt early in the week are irritated because they don’t have anyone to reply to. Students who wait until the last minute to log on benefit from reading everyone else’s ideas before sharing their own.

Here are three questions to ask yourself if you want to increase engagement in online discussions:

1. What is the purpose of discussions in my online course?

If the purpose of the discussion is to deepen understanding of course topics, a good prompt will encourage personal reflection. For example: “What topic from this week’s reading stood out to you as particularly relevant to you? Why?”

If the purpose of the discussions is to check for gaps in understanding, a good prompt will encourage students to help each other master complex concepts. For example: “As we prepare for the Midterm Exam, what’s one concept that you understand well enough that you could teach it to someone else? What’s a concept that you could use some help with?”

If the purpose of the discussions is to build community, a good prompt will be a question that everyone is able to and excited to answer. For example, “What is something you’re looking forward to in the next six months?”

2. Am I asking my students to participate in a conversation, or to write an essay?

Most learning management systems (LMS) have a feature where the instructor can hide other students’ posts until a student posts their response to the prompt.

This is a good strategy for reducing the temptation to “borrow” ideas, but what students are really doing, if they can’t see anyone else’s posts, is writing an essay. Using the discussion board as a freewriting forum to get students’ ideas flowing is a fine approach, but instructors should expect more replies like “great post!” and fewer authentic back-and-forth conversations.

Consider allowing students to see each other’s posts, with a caveat that each contributor to the discussion has to add something new. For example, “Share a link to a free tutorial or YouTube video for one of this week’s concepts. For full credit, post a link that no one else has shared yet.”

3. Are discussions integral to success in my course, or are they optional?

It’s important to align the point value of discussions with their relative importance in the course. If they are not weighted heavily, some students might choose to opt out of participating in the discussions.

If, however, discussions are as important to overall success in your course as the other assignments, students are more likely to see them as important tasks to put serious effort into, not ‘busy work’ that’s separate from the real work of the course.

Making these decisions about the purpose of the discussion board within your course is the first step in crafting prompts that are more engaging and more useful to your online students.