When students actively participate in class discussions, they learn to articulate their perspectives, consider their peers’ differing viewpoints, and take ownership over their own learning experience. There is clearly value in collaborative learning, but engaging learners has its difficulties, especially when it comes to encouraging engagement on eLearning discussion boards. If you’re struggling with this, here are some characteristics of a quiet discussion board and suggestions on how to improve them.

3 ways to Engage Learners on eLearning Discussion Boards

Problem 1: Surface-level questions

A dull discussion can sometimes be the result of a close-ended question. For example: “Who wrote ‘Pride and Prejudice’? Discuss and respond to five classmates.”

I may be exaggerating a little, but this is the perfect example of a poorly thought out question. There is nothing to discuss, because there is only one right answer. When learners are forced to respond to each other nonetheless, the conversation ends up looking like this:

“Jane Austen.”
“I agree.”
“Me, too.”

…and the “discussion” ends just as quickly as it begins.

Another way to guarantee an unproductive discussion is to ask broad questions that lack direction:

“What did you think of Chapter 3? Reflect and reply to three of your peers.”

While an improvement from the first, this question has no focus. Because it has no specific purpose, the assignment starts to feel like busy work forced upon learners simply for the sake of creating some sort of interaction. Responding to peers becomes a tedious chore rather than a valuable learning activity, and this ultimately slows down the discussion.

Solution: Ask questions that are open-ended and specific.

This is especially important for online facilitators. While traditional classroom instructors can call on students or clarify their point if there is a lull in the discussion, online instructors have to let their questions speak for themselves. An open-ended yet specific discussion question might look something like this:

“‘Pride and Prejudice’ was initially called ‘First Impressions.’ Why might Jane Austen have changed the title, and which one do you think is more fitting?”

There is no right answer, and it also prompts learners to share their opinions on a particular topic. Their different stances will encourage a natural dialogue where they challenge or support each other’s insights.

Problem 2: Procrastination

Ideally, all online courses would have proactive learners who post their responses long before they are due so they’d have plenty of time to provide feedback to their peers and engage in thoughtful debate. But let’s be real. More often than not, learners scramble to finish their own responses hours (or even minutes) before the deadline, leaving no time left to read and reply to their classmates. What was intended to be conversations amongst peers then becomes a series of disconnected monologues.

Solution: Set separate deadlines for personal and peer responses.

By setting the personal response deadline before the one for peer responses, learners will have time to test their opinions against those of their peers. Navigating through a variety of perspectives promotes collaborative learning and helps learners gain a better understanding of the class material.

Problem 3: Narrow focus of conversation

A downside of focusing on one specific open-ended question is that it can sometimes limit the scope of the dialogue. For example, the question about which Jane Austen title is more fitting restricts learners to that one topic. They may have other interesting ideas to bring to the table, but there may not be any opportunities to share them.

Solution: Provide multiple discussion questions, and facilitate peer conversations.

Instead of giving a single prompt to open a discussion, consider presenting learners with a few questions to think about and respond to.

For this week’s discussion, please answer one of the following questions:

  • ‘Pride and Prejudice’ was initially called ‘First Impressions.’ Why might Jane Austen have changed the title, and which one do you think is more fitting?”
  • The novel opens with, ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” How does the author set the tone of the story?
  • Whose point of view is the story told from? How does it help readers understand the characters?

Don’t forget to respond to three of your peers. Feel free to ask each other questions as well!

This way, not only do learners have the option to pick the question that most resonates with them, but they can also ask their own. With different learners responding to and bringing up different questions, more topics are put on the table, creating a richer discussion. Instructors can also improve the discussion quality and participation by facilitating conversations. When students have interesting ideas, instructors can jump into the discussion and encourage them to flesh out their thoughts and invite their peers to contribute as well.
Asking the right questions, spacing out response deadlines, giving learners topic options, and facilitating peer conversations can engage learners and turn lackluster “discussions” into insightful conversations with multiple perspectives. This type of collaboration promotes critical thinking and learner understanding, making the learning experience both effective and valuable.