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Strategies to Make Discussion Boards More Engaging

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Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. HansenFaculty Director, School of Arts and Humanities

Discussion boards are a required part of many online courses, but they can sometimes get flat and boring. In this episode, APU’s Dr. Bethanie Hansen talks about how to have an engaging dialogue with students. Learn five strategies to improve discussion boards as well as how to apply the Guided ANCHORS approach to managing discussion forums.

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Dr. Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun. Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen, and I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.

Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge today. I am Bethanie Hansen, and I’m very excited to share with you some management strategies for your discussion boards. After all, faculty engage in discussions with their students pretty regularly in online education.

If you are using asynchronous discussions, that means throughout the week, people post their responses and return periodically to reply to people. This discussion area can get really interesting and really engaging, or it can be flat and very boring: one post, two replies, and you’re out of there.

To make this more interesting, I have for you today, several strategies that will help you to make your discussions more rich and engaging, and to have a variety of approaches that you use as the faculty member teaching that class.

I remember a long time ago when I started teaching online, I think the course I’m thinking of was in 2010. I didn’t really know exactly what to do in the discussion. Perhaps you’ve been there. Initially, you think you’re there to give a little bit of feedback about whether students are getting it right or not. Of course, feedback is helpful and feedback is very necessary from the instructor, especially in the subject matter.

But the kind of engagement I’m talking about today is what you do to actually have a dialogue about the subjects you’re discussing. What can you do to avoid just high-fiving your students or saying “good job,” or “good post,” but to have something more of substance to say?

I like to share with my online faculty when I’m coaching them or working with them or giving them tips, I really encourage them to share something with their students that could come uniquely from that instructor. What is the expertise, personality, insight, or background that you uniquely have, and your students can profit by? What is it you’d like them to walk away from your course learning that they really can only get from being with you?

In a face-to-face live class, of course, they have our presence. They can see us, know us, hear us and talk back and forth with us in real time. But online, that just is not the case. As we’re conversing online, we have to find creative ways to bring out those things that make us unique and give us that benefit our students need.

Strategies to Improve Online Discussion Forums

We’re going to talk about several different strategies on how you, as the instructor, can engage in your discussion forums with students. Overall, these strategies can help you when you try a variety of approaches. I hope you’ll enjoy these strategies today, and we’re going to dive right in.

Use a Beginner’s Mind Approach

The very first strategy is to use a beginner’s mind. The beginner’s mind is a concept that comes from the field of sociology. It is also known in Zen Buddhism. And the beginner’s mind is the totally and completely innocent approach to the subject matter.

You come wanting to learn from the other person’s perspective. You’re genuinely curious in the present moment, focused on what’s being talked about and experienced right now. Regardless of what you might already know about what your students are writing, when you read a post from a student, and you go to reply to that if you’re using a beginner’s mind, you can have deep and powerful questions.

You can ask for more information about what they have to say. You can ask them what they mean by a certain phrase or by something they’ve said, even just the word they chose to use. You can get really curious and create interesting questions you would not otherwise consider.

When you come with a beginner’s mind, all assumptions and judgments are gone. You would not assume that you already know exactly what the student’s talking about. This’ll allow you to read their posts in a new light. You can look at it, and instead of assuming that you think, you know what they’re saying, you can investigate, ask more questions and find out what they’re really saying, what it really means to them to think of things in the way they’ve presented it.

That beginner’s mind can be one approach to responding to your students in the discussion forum. Of course, with that, most students will not be used to you using this approach in your replies. So be aware that you also want to consider the tone of your questions and give a little bit of insight about how you’re phrasing it when you send that question to your students.

Share Your Unique Expertise

The second perspective you can adopt in engaging in the discussion forums creatively as the faculty member would be to share your unique expertise. You have spent thousands of hours preparing yourself in the subject matter to be able to teach it. You probably have some life experience or professional experience in the field as well.

I’ll give you an example of that. My field is music, and I began music as an eight year old kid. As an almost 50-something year old adult, I have a lot of expertise in music. I’ve led bands, I’ve composed music, I’ve performed on my instrument all over the world. There’s just a lot I can bring to that discussion.

When we’re talking about maybe Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto, I can actually bring my expertise into that discussion, and I can mention that I performed Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto in a senior recital when I was getting my bachelor’s degree.

I can share some thoughts about how that music is structured that would be unique to my experience as a performer on that piece, and I can also ask questions that would be a lot more insightful than if I chose some other topic or some other approach to that.

Bringing my expertise into that discussion is going to also give the student more depth, where I’m not demanding they have that level of expertise, I’m just sharing, “based on what I’ve done, here’s a thought for you.”

Weave in Current Events into Discussion Forums

A third area that we can bring into our discussion board facilitation or a leadership as faculty members is current events. We can bring in anything from last night’s news, something we saw on the internet that we find to be well-researched and informative, something that’s happening in our local area, anything that’s going on in the world that seems related.

Now, for example, if you’re a communication instructor, this could be particularly relevant. Or maybe let’s say you’re teaching a world language like Spanish or Portuguese, and maybe there’s something happening in Mexico or Brazil. You could bring that into the discussion in real time, share a link to where they can find out more about what’s going on, and we can then ask some questions about their insights, how it relates to the course content.

It makes the learning real world. It brings in yours perspective and expertise, but at the same time, it brings in the current events. Anytime we connect to current events, we’re helping students to think through reality, application of the content they’re learning about, and the real world that’s connected to that academic world. We don’t want things to be two separate worlds, and bringing those current events into the discussion can be a really beautiful way for you to engage.

One caution about bringing in current events is to help your students remember that we’re discussing these at the academic, yet applied level. Even though they might have a lot of passionate opinions, they should be sure to back them up with evidence from the course, the theories about the content and other things they’re learning alongside their discussion or their opinion.

Use Well-Researched Posts

A fourth way you can be engaged in that discussion as the faculty member is to be involved with prepared and well-researched posts. There are some things you might find that you’re constantly discussing from one course section to the next.

Every single time I teach music appreciation online, I’m going to be talking about Mozart. There are well-researched and evidence-based facts out there about the life of Mozart. We all know that Mozart was a prodigy as a child. He was paraded around by his father. He performed for a lot of dignitaries and noble people, and he composed music at like age six or seven.

There are some facts about Mozart that I could have in some well-crafted posts, and several times throughout the course, when we’re talking about these ideas, I might use that content. Now, I can use that content the next time I’m teaching the course and the next time as well.

If I choose to use that content when I’m responding to an individual student in the discussion, then I first need to write a few sentences to acknowledge what the student said and build up to what I’m about to share. Then I can integrate that well-researched content I’ve already created, and I can just add it to the discussion again and again and again. This is a really great way to share some of the more important points that you really want to make sure come up in every single course.

Now, in contrast to responding to one student, I could instead have some initial posts from me as the instructor to just highlight certain points and certain takeaways. That’s another way to use a well-researched prepared post every time you teach that class.

Use a Coach-Like Approach

Then a fifth idea that I have for you is called the coach-like approach. Now you may or may not know, but I have a coaching background as well as my educator background. As a coach, I’m often asking people a lot of questions that are open-ended, and I’ll follow those up with more questions. It’s a lot like the Socratic method, only when I’m coaching, we’re focused on the person and their development, and we’re not necessarily focused on the topic itself alone.

In the classroom, we could of course apply that. We can ask questions that are, open-ended, often starting out with the word “what” or “why” or “how,” and we can also follow those up with more application. We can ask how the student might use the learning in their life or in their professional field. We can ask what is most interesting to them and what will they take away from this discussion.

A lot of the coach-like approach is really asking questions to help the student make those connections, or in other words, connect the dots between their learning and the reality. Also, bringing out the social and personal development, where this information can be applied and where it can be applied in their career field.

A coach-like approach can also be helpful when you’re giving some instructions to assignments, and you’re sharing some announcement about that. You can ask questions about how they might approach it, what they might want to consider, and you can also provide resources and tips. Whether you do that in the discussion or separately in the announcements area, I highly recommend a coach-like approach, and I find that it helps students to think more fully about how they want to approach it, rather than just asking them to conform to what others are expecting.

Guided ANCHORS can Improve Discussion Boards

Now, outside of the five ways that I have shared that you might be interested in engaging, I have also another resource for you that I’d like to talk about, and that is called “Guided ANCHORS, Better Discussion Boards With Guided ANCHORS,” and it’s by Bruce A. Johnson. I have an infographic linked in the podcast notes here, and also a resource you can check out.

Guided ANCHORS stands for acknowledge, nurturing, critical, highlight, organized, research and springboard. Each one of these is an approach that you can take to your discussion replies to students when you’re talking with them throughout the week in your forum discussions.

Acknowledgement

The first one, acknowledge, is the first step in developing the anchors. It is a student’s post there, and you’re going to acknowledge it in some way. You might thank them for their attempt to answer the discussion question. You might paraphrase or summarize what they’ve said, and basically give them a little high five, like, “Nice job, Tom. I appreciated your post on XYZ item. It sounds like you’re saying some great things about XYZ item, and I can see your point.” So that’s a basic acknowledgement.

Anytime you can bring out their perspective, feed it back to them and just give them that high five, students feel like you’ve seen what they wrote and they feel validated in many ways. Acknowledgement is a very basic level thing we can do for our students. It just gives a little bit of your social presence.

Nurturing

Nurturing, the next step, involves the student’s development in a supportive way. You’re responding and not just calling them out on what they have written, but also building them a little bit. You might ask questions to help them further develop as a subject matter learner. You might also bring out how they’re growing in the subject.

The nurturing approach is a really solid way to help continue growing your students, especially throughout a discussion where they have to dig deeper and take things to a higher level than they have in previous weeks.

The nurturing approach, just as a mindset, will prompt for you asking questions in certain ways that are focused on nurturing the learner, nurturing the student into a professional who can also think these things out in the field, should they need to apply them.

Critical

The third thing is critical. Now, you might respond in a manner that prompts critical thinking for your students. This we also like to call a cognitive presence. If we’re talking about the Community of Inquiry model, critical thinking about the subject could involve taking those course materials and guiding students through the process of analyzing the subject.

We can question some of the assumptions behind what we’re studying. We can also synthesize some of the ideas. How could we tie them together? We can ask, how does it connect to the previous week’s learning? And anything we can do to critically analyze things is going to help students take that to the next level and really remember it in the future. Critical prompts can just really help your students as they develop as academic experts and also practitioners out in the field where they can apply whatever it is they’re learning.

Highlight

Another step in the Guided ANCHORS would be the highlight approach. The next step is to highlight the important points in the course materials and bring them into your replies to your students in the forum discussion.

This could include any part of the reading that you feel hasn’t been brought in enough and that students are struggling with. You can break it down. You can explain it. You could put a little video of yourself talking about it. This is especially helpful in wrap-up posts that you might put at the end of the forum discussion week, tying all the main ideas together.

You can also use the highlight approach midweek, or even at the beginning of the week, when you want to bring in something unique or difficult to understand, or that you want to make sure they take away. Highlighting is a powerful way to add teaching presence to the course.

Organized

The fifth way of engaging in discussions from our Guided ANCHORS tool is organized. This fifth step is to take a totally organized approach to the development of your responses as the faculty member. Your participation posts should not just be reactive responses to whatever your students are writing. If you’re only doing that, that’s really just at a surface level of your engagement.

You really want to have some things that are organized and planned ahead. You might have some of those pre-crafted posts that you have developed over time that build on what students present and that you’re going to add into the discussion. This could take the form of what I’ve mentioned previously, which would be the prepared and well-researched posts.

Think about how you might take an organized approach to your overall forum engagement, whether it’s adding something early in the week, adding something late in the week. Then having a little more reactive, in-the-moment dialogue midweek.

Research

Next we have the research. I can’t say this enough, but it’s really valuable for you to have a few pieces of content. You really want to share with students in a dialogue that are researched and well-prepared. There are a few reasons for this. Of course, some students skim the lessons and they skim the reading, or sometimes even skip over it.

Then they’ll go into that discussion area and think that they can glean the entire week’s learning just by reading everybody’s posts. We know that’s not true. They do need to get the content, but if that’s a student that you’re seeing, then putting some well-researched, prepared content that you’re sharing is going to make up the difference in many cases.

Your researched post would be supplemental sources. They would be summaries of main points that you’re sharing. They will be anything that you’ve prepared really well, and you can put your citations at the bottom to model how that could be done.

Then you’re going to be sharing those to further guide your students somewhat in your teaching presence, and you’re also promoting the cognitive presence, that greater depth of understanding they’re going to need in the subject.

Springboard

Then lastly, the springboard, the last step is to create a springboard post that’s going to prompt further discussion by concluding with a little bit of a follow up. That could be a follow-up question, a challenge to take it deeper, a video to watch. Something that’s going to simply acknowledge what students have written, what they’re already thinking about, but challenge them to take it a little bit deeper.

This is your professional expertise coming through again, and it just might create an even more stimulating discussion when you’re challenging and spring boarding onto something else.

Engaging Discussions Can Further Engage Students

I hope you’ll think about these Guided ANCHORS that Bruce Johnson has written about. Also, the five tips that I gave you in the beginning that are my strategies for engaging in the discussions. Through all of these various approaches, you’re going to find that discussions become a lot more fun, varied in what’s happening, and of course, you’re going to see a lot more depth in the replies you get from your students from week to week, as the course progresses.

Now, I encourage you to look at APU Edge, and that is a source where we have a few other podcast episodes on how to create good discussion forum posts, how to vary the actual prompts there, and also those are posted on my website, BethanieHansen.com.

These are great ways to make sure that the questions you’re asking initially to prompt the forum engagement from students are well-written and designed carefully to stimulate discussion and also create interesting, creative engagement.

But today’s podcast really has been more about you and your role of facilitating dialogue and leading in that discussion. There are so many ways you can engage with your students to bring your expertise and knowledge into the course, without really just giving them all the answers.

I hope that you will try them, explore them, and see what they bring you in your teaching, and especially in the overall satisfaction you get from your teaching. I wish you all the best this coming week in your online teaching journey, and thank you again for joining us to dive in to discussion forums.

This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge Podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit BethanieHansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen is a Faculty Director and Certified Professional Coach for the School of Arts & Humanities. She holds a B.M. in Music Education from Brigham Young University, a M.S. in Arts & Letters from Southern Oregon University and a DMA in Music Education from Boston University. She is an educator, coach, manager, writer, presenter and musician with 25 years of experience helping others achieve their goals.

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