Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Power of Discussion Boards

Discussion Boards are a very powerful learning tool.  They allow students to show what they do and do not understand about the material being taught.  Are the students learning?  Which aspects of the content do they have questions and opinions about?  Which areas of the discussion are they strongest in, and therefore can assist their classmates? 

Discussion Boards allow students to support their assertions, read and respond to the assertions of others, and add to their original post, by providing support and evidence. The discussion board is an evolutionary process.  It should be messy, opinions should be challenged and questioned, appropriately, minds should change, and epiphanies should occur. 

One key rule with discussion boards is to avoid asking questions that have a correct answer.  If there is a correct answer, there is no discussion.  If there is a correct answer, the second, third, fourth, etc. students who respond to the board can simply copy the first person's entry.  It happens. To avoid this, ask questions that require the students to think critically, are open ended, require students to clarify and support their claims. Ask students questions in which the answers are unique to them, relate to their point of view/perspective, the way they view the world, and how it is relevant to the topic.
Discussion Boards are also excellent diagnostic tool.  Asking students to formulate questions about their reading that they want to know more about and then posting those questions and their rationale behind them allows me, as the instructor, to do two things:

1.  Interact with my students efficiently and collaboratively. 
2.  Determine what I need to teach in terms of how to formulate good questions.  Here, I can determine whether or not they need further guidance, and hopefully, here also, if a student does need more support or direction, they can receive it from each other as well as from the instructor. 

Discussion Boards can take place during a day, week, or several weeks of the course.  Students and instructors can return to them, edit them, and continue to learn from them after the assignment is complete.  This powerful tool also builds community, and allows the teacher to hear from the students who may not normally contribute in a traditional face to face discussion.