Here it is about three weeks away from our new semester starting and I’m planning a new, revised, and totally better online discussion board for my online classes. Never mind that I really don’t know our new Blackboard 9 system that well yet or that I’ll be teaching an online class that I haven’t taught in a couple of years – I mean I’ve got three weeks!
I’ve been a big supporter of online discussion boards for a long time so I was intrigued by an article in a recent Faculty Focus Special Report. The article by Rob Kelly was titled “A Plan for Effective Discussion Boards.” I began to read, assuming I would find my discussion board strategies validated. About half-way through I came across a paragraph that began “Too often, however, instructors simply ask students to state their independent thinking on a subject and perhaps comment on two classmates’ postings.” Whoops – that’s a big part of what I typically do; perhaps I’m not on the cutting edge of best practices after all! Not that my approach is a bad or ineffective one, but the article pointed out a number of ways to make a more effective discussion board.
One of the tips in the article was that the instructor should have an active presence on the discussion board. This may strike some as obvious but I’ve heard arguments from colleagues that the instructor should be as unobtrusive as possible: since we probably won’t post a response to every student, every time, this reasoning goes, it’s better not to post at all because responding to just some students’ posts may make the others feel as though their posts aren’t worthy of the instructor’s response. Some instructor’s handle this dilemma by posting a summary at the end of the week’s discussion board period. While I do like the summary idea, I think a good way to acknowledge to students that you will not be replying to every student post is to say you plan to choose a few representative posts to respond to each week (or module).
What I most liked about the article were the recommendations by Richard Paul that are likely to engage students at a deeper level of thinking. Paul’s six recommendations as contained in Kelly’s article are the following.
Conceptual clarification questions – questions that get students to think about concepts behind their arguments, for example, Why are you saying that? What exactly does this mean? How does this relate to what we have been talking about? Can you give me an example?
Probing assumptions – questions that get students to think about the beliefs that they base their arguments on, for example, What else could we assume? How did you choose those assumptions? How can you verify or disprove that assumption? What would happen if . . . ?
Probing rationale, reasons, and evidence – questions that get students to think about the support for their arguments, for example, Why is that happening? How do you know this? Can you give me an example? What do you think causes . . .? On what authority are you basing your argument?
Questioning viewpoints and perspectives – questions that get students to consider other viewpoints, for example, What are some alternate ways of looking at this? Who benefits from this? How are x and y similar?
Probe implications and consequences – questions that get students to think about the [sic] what follows from their arguments, for example, Then what would happen? What are the consequences of that assumption?
Questions about the question – questions that turn the question in on itself, for example, What was the point of asking that question? Why do you think I asked this question?
While it may not be practical for us to post responses to every student post, posting the sort of Socratic questions listed above to a representative group of student discussion board posts will encourage everyone to think more critically.
And speaking of grading rubrics . . . ok, I’ll save that for another day!
Kelly, R. (nd). A plan for effective discussion boards, in a Faculty Focus Special Report