Active Learning Instructional Strategy: Discussion Board Prompts

Overview and Introduction: The WHAT and WHO

As detailed in the Active Learning: Overview and Introduction Quick Reference Guide, active learning is a term used to describe instructional methods that increase student involvement and engagement in the learning process.  Students can be active in a variety of ways; interacting with the instructor, with one another, and with the content.  Discussion boards can encourage these interactions, providing opportunities for students to reflect and apply recently-learned concepts and to interact with their peers while discussing course content.  

Discussion boards (also known as discussion forums, message boards, online forums, or discussion groups) are simply a way to have conversations outside of the in-person classroom setting.  Discussion boards allow learners to respond to comments and questions and are typically organized in threads below a main question.  Discussion boards are a great way to help students stay engaged in the course, to answer questions that can’t be reviewed in class, and to give context to ideas when class time is limited. There are a variety of tools that can be used to manage classroom discussion boards including Canvas, Slack, YellowDig, and Ed Discussions

Discussion boards can be included in nearly any course.  Prompts can be used to increase content comprehension, retention, and metacognitive skills in any type of course and provide students with social connection outside of the classroom setting.  

Implementation and Timing: The WHEN, WHERE, and HOW

There is no ‘right time’ to use discussion boards. They can be implemented throughout the course as a way to introduce or reflect on content, to improve student engagement, and as a way to encourage peer-to-peer interaction. While there is no right answer to when questions should be included, it may be helpful to set the expectation of active participation in classroom discussion boards beginning at the start of the course.  Suddenly introducing discussion board activities half way through the course may be confusing and frustrating for students.  

Plan for Implementation

    • Managing Discussions. Let students know how active you will be in online discussion forums and consider managing discussion boards with available tools, including Canvas, Slack, YellowDig, and Ed Discussions.  
    • Explain the why. Explain to students why you are incorporating discussion posts and ensure that students see a clear connection between the online discussion board posts and other elements of the course.  Acknowledge that they will need to invest time into the discussion posts and explain how these types of activities encourage content comprehension, retention, and metacognitive skills.
    • Grading: Reward what you want to see. In a perfect world, students would be intrinsically motivated to discuss ideas posted on discussion boards and would instinctively know how to do so effectively, but most research shows that even doctoral students need guidance including grading instructions, sample posts, and clear instructions to be successful (Amaro-Jimenz & Beckett, 2010). With this in mind, it is important that you determine your reason for including a discussion board – is it a forum for checking comprehension or ‘pre-work’, a repository for course knowledge, or a place for peer-to-peer interaction centered on content? Once you have made this determination, find a rubric or grading plan that supports your instructional goals for the discussion board. 

Create interesting posts

Not sure what to include in a discussion board prompt? Below are a few suggestions to get you started.

    • Ask Socrative questions.  Here are Six types of Socratic questions you can use. 
    • Ask probing questions. Help students reflect and clarify their understanding and reach higher levels of understanding by posing probing questions.
    • Ask real-world or hypothetical questions. Show an image or real-world question related to the topic you have been covering or provide a hypothetical scenario for students. For example, in a Information Security course, an instructor may present a hypothetical scenario about a company being hacked, the students would then have to answer or come up with a project plan that addresses how they would handle the hack if they were the IT director or 3rd party company. This type of hypothetical example provides students the opportunity to apply recently-learned information to a hypothetical, real-world example. 
    • Give supplementary practice problems. Post three supplementary practice questions similar to something students would see in a homework assignment.  
    • Post a TEDTalk. Post relevant TEDTalks (or other related lecture videos) that are engaging for your students to watch.  Ask three thought-provoking prompts to encourage discussion.
    • Relevant Journal Article. Post a relevant journal article (not a random webpage) that is applicable and important for students to read. Ask three thought-provoking prompts to encourage discussion.
    • Relevant Engineering Technology. Post a new engineering technology or innovation that is relevant for your students to learn about. Ask three thought-provoking prompts to encourage discussion.
    • Useful Skills and Student Tips. UGTAs or other students can reflect on their experiences as a student and find some resources that may help students with material or transitions going on in your class. They post these tips and encourage discussion.

After Class

Reflect. Did the discussion posts improve student comprehension of the topic? What updates or changes can you make to the posts for future classes based on this round of implementation?

Rationale and Research: The WHY

Active learning, rooted in the theory of constructivism, champions the idea that students should actively participate in the learning process.  Active Learning decentralizes the learning from the instructor and supports them in presenting information more effectively. Active Learning, including discussion posts, also better prepare students for the current workplace, where they will need to interact frequently with their peers, discussing complex ideas and verbalizing their understanding as well as their questions.  

Discussion posts provide students with the opportunity to ask questions, apply newly acquired skills, build skills in metacognition, and receive more frequent and immediate feedback on content comprehension. It also creates more opportunities for social and collaborative interaction, two factors which have been shown to be particularly important for underrepresented students in STEM disciplines (Crescente & Lee, 2011).

Additional Resources and References

Interested in learning more?  Here are additional resources on discussion prompts as well as citations and links to articles referenced in this document.

Beckett, G., Amaro-Jiménez, C., & Beckett, K. (2010). Students’ use of asynchronous discussions for academic discourse socialization, Distance Education, 31:3, 315-33. DOI:
Cranney, M., Alexander, J. L., Wallace, W., & Alfano, L. (2011). Instructor’s discussion forum effort: Is it worth it? MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 7(3), 337-348.
Crescente, M. L., & Lee, D. (2011). Critical issues of m-learning: design models, adoption processes, and future trends. Journal of the Chinese institute of industrial engineers28(2), 111-123. DOI: 10.1080/10170669.2010.548856