Getting the Most Student Engagement from Online Discussions

April 16th, 2014 by Brantley McKeithan

As an online instructor, you may be familiar with using the Blackboard Discussion Board tool or at least familiar with how online discussions work from other websites. We ask our students a question and they reply to that question. Then we typically require students to reply to one or two other students in hopes of recreating a face-to-face classroom discussion. In theory, we can get students to engage with the course materials and even each other outside the classroom. Many argue that online discussions can be better than face-to-face discussions because every student must participate (not just the few who always engage) and they have time for more thought out replies.

While the concept of an online discussion may be familiar, less so are the best practices to get students to truly engage with the discussion, with each other, and with the material. Here are some tips and suggestions to get students truly engaged:

  1. Focus your initial questions on the students ability to process and use the material or on how a particular topic or concept from the course relates to them, their lives, etc. Ask for their opinions on topics, how they see or understand the material.
  2. Provide students with requirements on what you want or expect from replies to each other. Regardless of the types of questions you initially ask, the replies are where you gain student interactivity, which is the main point of using the Discussion Board tool.  What is a substantial reply to you? Giving them even basic directions may help to foster the quality discussions you hope.  For example, if you have students collecting web resources and reporting that information in the discussion board, ask the students when replying to each other, to evaluate the resource, provide a critique, etc. Why is this good resource? I often ask students to read each other’s posts and reply with questions and suggestions based on their own experiences.


Other discussion board best practices:

  • Model good discussion posts for your students. Let them see how you want it done!
  • Set guidelines on approximate length and/or substance of posts and replies.
  • Have separate due dates for initial responses and replies to other students.
  • Stick with what they know- have posts (or other assignments) due at regular intervals such as sticking to the Monday/Wednesday/Friday or Tuesday/Thursday formats they already know from face-to face classes.
  • Always include a weekend – give busy students (those with family or work obligations) time to work over the weekends
  • Make discussions a substantial part of your final grade, after all much of this can be considered the ‘in class time’ for online and hybrid courses.
  • Grade regularly, and even jump in and participate in the discussions – students need to know you’re paying attention. (You can even tell students how much you will be involved so they know ahead of time when to expect you.)
  • Be consistent – use regularly.  Even if you don’t know the topic, you can still plan to have a discussion.
  • Never be afraid to change it up! – vary types of questions, even number of questions each week.
  • Don’t use for homework collection – there are far easier tools for that!


Try brainstorming with each other to generate quality discussion topics!  And, of course, the Online Learning team is always happy to sit down with any instructor and talk about possible discussion topics and activities.  You can reach me at x7722 or

Tool Help: If you wish to learn about using the Blackboard Discussion Board itself, please visit our Discussion Board How-To Page or contact Brantley McKeithan at x7772 or