Discover a discussion board strategy that organically encourages students to move beyond simple agreement to critical thinking and synthesis.

Coming into this semester with little online teaching experience, I knew I wanted to use a weekly discussion system that would be 1) at least a little different from the post and two responses that I have experienced both as faculty and student, 2) something I could implement across my courses, which are at both the undergraduate and graduate level, and 3) a strategy that required engagement with both course content and classmates’ ideas. 

New in my role, I was low on time and fully admit that I just wanted something that would be good enough to get me through my first semester. I decided to set up two discussions per week and not require that students reply to one another directly – trying to avoid multiple versions of “I agree!”. The first post, due by Wednesday night, would be at least 300 words in response to a prompt, which was designed to help students both explore the content in the reading and to apply it to their practice. For the second post, due Friday night, I asked students to, in 150 words or more, write a response that showed that they had read and thought about at least three other students’ posts. 

It is fascinating to see student work based on the simple prompt to “show that you have read and thought about at least three colleagues’ posts.” Some write three separate short paragraphs responding to three classmates specifically. This is the format I expected. However, more than half of my students write a response that synthesizes their classmates’ ideas. They note trends in the entire class with examples, or present some commonalities and differences between and among multiple classmates.

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A few weeks into the semester, I wondered if I had, mostly through luck, stumbled upon a format that accomplished even more than I had hoped. In my midterm feedback, it became clear that some students were seeing what I was seeing: without it being required, they were doing synthesis work. Having all first posts due before students could do the second post also kept everyone from just referring to the first few students’ posts in the thread. Students indicated that they liked the structure and felt they were seeing more of the whole picture in each module. 

One thing that this strategy does not require – and students rarely do – is a direct response to  classmates’ posts in the same thread. I want my students to build relationships with one another, and I do believe that some of that is missing with this strategy. But, as with nearly all good routines, exceptions are often a nice break. At a busy point in the semester, I asked people to do a check-in post and respond to one another directly – no required number of responses, just authentic engagement. I am still working on when and how often to change things up in this way, but I do think it is worth doing. 

I have a lot to learn about teaching online, and I may find that I need to change things up again. In the meantime, I am grateful that students are willing to buy in and really, truly think about each others’ posts. Our students always impress me, and this is just one way they are doing it. 

What do you do to help your students synthesize and engage with each other? Share your thoughts in the comments below.