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Facilitate Better Online Discussions

Discussion boards can be a great tool to add depth to your course and allow students to learn from each other. So why do discussion boards turn into a grading nightmare and a chore to read for so many faculty?

Because it’s easy for discussion boards to get out of hand and take on a life of their own. It’s also easy for them to never really take off at all. 

The good news is there are a number of things you can do to help facilitate better online discussions. Let’s talk through a few ideas.

Post Discussion Guidelines

Posting clear and simple discussion guidelines helps students understand how they should behave and interact in an online forum. I’ve added some general discussion guidelines to our college Blackboard template, but feel free to modify or replace them with guidelines that better suit your class. 

Another benefit of posting guidelines is that you can easily reference them when a student is not following proper discussion etiquette. Refer to the guidelines if you have to contact a student who is not conducting himself or herself appropriately.

Use a Grading Rubric

Posting a discussion board rubric sets expectations and allows students to understand the types of posts they need to produce to earn the grade they want. 

A grading rubric is also hugely beneficial to you as the instructor for 2 key reasons: 1) it helps keep you on track and remember what you’re looking for as you get deeply immersed in your subject matter; and 2) it makes grading a piece of cake in Blackboard.

Make sure you upload your rubric in Blackboard using the Rubrics course tool. Then make sure you select your rubric as you are building out each forum. Once you’ve done this, you’ll be prompted to grade each student submission with the rubric, and you’ll see another text area to provide instructor feedback.

Be Selective About Discussion Board Options

Blackboard offers several options for tailoring your discussion boards to your class and your preferences. Here are a few options you may want to consider as you are structuring your next online discussion.

Commenting Before Seeing Other Comments

If you are concerned about students copying each other’s work and not sharing original ideas, you can elect to have them share a post before they can view other posts. Under Forum Settings go to the Viewing Threads/Replies section and select “Participants must create a thread in order to view other threads in this forum.”

Screenshot of Forum Settings in Blackboard.

Not Allowing Students to Create Their Own Thread

A few faculty members have mentioned to me that they can get disoriented while grading discussion board posts because they are viewing posts out of context and have a hard time following what the students are supposed to be addressing. 

To combat this, you can turn off students’ ability to create new threads under Forum Settings. Instead, you as the instructor create the parent thread and then all students are just replying to your post.

Screenshot of Forum Settings in Blackboard.

The nice thing about doing it this way is that you always see the same name of the thread for everyone, so you have a better idea about what you’re looking at. The trick is to remember that you have to write the first thread — otherwise your students won’t be able to post anything.

Creating Discussion Forums Based on Groups

Does it feel like your discussion topics don’t offer enough for a class of 20+ students to all contribute different ideas? To keep conversations fresh and engaging for both you and your students, consider developing discussion forums based on Blackboard groups. 

By using Groups, you’ll have smaller sets of students discussing a given topic, which makes it easier for you and for them to keep up with all the comments.

A Final Note

Another popular option is to create a discussion forum for students to post questions for the instructor. These types of forums are typically not for a grade, but can be a great way for students and their classmates to read and access feedback from an instructor. 

Please keep in mind that if you create this type of discussion forum, you will want to subscribe to it so you will receive email notifications when students post to it. Since adding comments to this forum isn’t for a grade, student submissions will never show up in the “Needs Grading” section.

Let me know if you want help trying out any of online discussion board options mentioned in this post.

Jayna Phinney
Jayna Phinney

Jayna Phinney is the Instructional Technology Specialist for the ASU College of Science and Engineering. Contact her at or 325-486-6264.



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