By Dr. Michael S. Miller
Faculty Member, Teaching Program, School of Education at American Public University
You have just begun taking classes online. It is the first day of the course and because you are extremely organized and have excellent time management skills, you have finished all of the required reading for the week. It is time to begin knocking out some of your assignments. It is likely the first one you will tackle is the discussion board. You think to yourself, “This should be simple; all I need to do is answer a couple of questions.” Sure, on the surface, it appears that way; however, the discussion board is about more than just answering the questions provided by the instructor. This is part of why the discussion board may seem elusive to many students.
The policies, procedures, and expectations for the discussion board vary from one school to the next. That is why it is critical that you (not your professor), are clear about how to begin. It is rather common that the professor has directed you towards the discussion board policies and expectations (if not, as an online student, you are ultimately responsible for finding out this information) for your particular school. You will want to locate this material before you get started. Some common policies include things like when your posts are due, the minimum required length for posts, and even the number of posts by your classmates to which you need to reply.
The Purpose of an Online Discussion Board Forum
While the true purpose may depend on who you ask, it is probable that the reason you are completing this assignment serves multiple purposes. Some of the main reasons most schools incorporate a discussion board into an online class include:
- To assist in building a sense of community among students;
- Students can replicate the robust discussions that take place in the traditional classroom;
- They serve as an additional medium for collaboration and the exchange of ideas; and/or
- As a way to demonstrate the understanding or application of course material.
Regardless of the purpose, each of the above-mentioned reasons alone should be enough for you to take this activity seriously. For example, most students attend school online due to their work and/or family schedule. In other words, they are simply not in a position to attend a weekly class in person. In a traditional classroom setting, you have the opportunity to get to know your classmates through a variety of interactions. It is through these interactions that a sense of community is built and you begin to feel comfortable bringing your thoughts or ideas to the table. Positive growth in class community is reflected through a sense of cohesion with other students, a higher degree of trust between students, an increased number of inquiries and questions between students and the instructor, and a general sense that the class is valuable and applicable to student needs (Rovai & Lucking, 2000).
The Student’s Role in an Online Discussion Board Forum
You may be wondering what your specific role is in this process. While there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to completing this assignment, there are several things you will want to consider. Keep in mind that all of your posts in a discussion board are meant to be reflective in nature, powering you to read other perspectives and carefully consider a response. Consider the following as general guidelines in order for both you and your classmates to get the most out of the discussion board:
- Think before you write. You will want to ponder all of your options and alternatives in the initial post. It is a good idea to use a word processing application to write your post, rather than typing it directly into the response box. This will give you more time to think about your response and edit as necessary.
- Think of the discussion board as an in-between of a chat and a formal essay. When we are chatting with someone, it generally consists of a fast-paced series of short verbal spurts. In a formal essay, we slowly develop larger ideas at length. The discussion board falls in between.
- It is also a good idea to read what others in your class have said before you. It is important to be aware of what has already been said. Try to add a new dimension, a different slant, or another perspective. Challenge yourself to try to weave the work of others into your own. When you do, mention the names and ideas of others and do not be afraid to bounce off your classmates or ask them questions.
- One sign of a successful post is the number and quality of responses it receive. If you write with the purpose of engaging others with your ideas, the more everyone will take away from the activity.
- As per the name of the activity, this is a discussion, so keep the conversation going. When someone responds to one of your posts, acknowledge the response by adding another post (or answering a question if they ask).
- Just as when you are in a regular classroom, there is also a proper etiquette to the discussion board. This etiquette includes listening to (reading) everybody, providing thoughtful responses, maintaining decorum, criticizing politely, addressing replies to people by name, signing your posts, etc.
- One of the best things about the discussion board is that it is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. For an optimal learning experience, visit the board frequently. If you (and your classmates) wait until there is a mound of posts before completing the activity, the discussion board will lose focus and become intimidating. This can also stifle fresh, focused responses. Instead, work on the discussion board in small time chunks to ensure that you are giving proper attention to both your work and the work of others.
As mentioned earlier, there are several benefits to a discussion board forum. It contributes to the development of your cognitive and critical thinking skills, allows time for thoughtful, in-depth reflection on course topics, facilitates exploratory learning by allowing you to review and respond to the work of others and paves the way for you to approach your own learning in diverse ways. Just as with any other assignment you complete while in school, you get out of the discussion board what you put into it.
Rovai, A. P., & Lucking, R. (2000, September). Measuring sense of classroom community. Paper presented at Learning 2000: Reassessing the Virtual University, Virginia Tech, Roanoke, VA.