5 Tips for Using Discussion Boards in Online Learning

My first experience with discussion boards was in my online graduate education program. I didn’t know exactly what to expect with this new mode of communication. In my undergraduate education, I spent most of my time learning in small classes centered around lively, in-person discussions. I never could have imagined how much I would come to value and appreciate the unique environment a discussion board creates within an online space. I now regard these online forums as a place for deep learning and discourse, and an opportunity to build a learning community for learners around the globe.

I wish that my past experience as an online learner, and later as a distance education administrator, helped me crack the code for creating optimal discussion boards. Unfortunately, like most things in education, it is a complex combination of teaching style, learning objectives and class dynamics; which requires regular adjustments along the way. My experience in medical education tells me there are even more elements to consider, especially in clinically focused content. However, here are a few tips I have collected over the years, which I think can help make your discussion boards a robust resource for your students without overburdening educators.

1. Clearly communicate your expectations

I have always found that when it comes to discussion boards, more information is better but explicit and detailed information is best. For example, create a rubric that clearly guides students on how they will be assessed in this area of the course. As I mentioned, it took me some time to adjust to this method for class participation. The rubrics I received became vital to my success throughout the program. It was a place where instructors could explain exactly what they were looking for in a good discussion post and allowed me to create good habits around this component of the class. I was also able to figure out the times that worked best for me to post, making it easy to shift things as my career and other responsibilities required. When I was working with medical students, I frequently handled requests for more information on how grades were calculated. Discussion boards are an easy place for students to get lost in the quickly evolving and expanding conversation. By including specific due dates and expectations in your rubric around original posts and replies, you can provide a clear path for your medical students to be successful. In my experience, when students know what is expected of them, they can develop their own process and habits for participation.

Use Leo to turn your rubric into an Evaluation!  Anyone supporting grading for Discussion Boards can easily complete the Evaluations and by pushing scores to your Leo Gradebook you can record and report results in one place.  Speaking of record keeping, Leo will keep a record of all your Discussion Board posts including deleted items!    

2. Make it count

In medical education, one of the key contributing factors to ensuring student involvement in discussion boards is to make them part of the student’s grade (Oliver & Shaw, 2003). If you have a rubric, then you are halfway there. The next challenge is making sure your students are not just “‘playing the game”  to earn top marks, but rather they are positively contributing to this asynchronous discussion (Oliver & Shaw, 2003, p. 56). I sometimes struggled to get my students to stop focusing on their grades and enjoy the learning process. Discussion boards are an excellent space to create this culture in your course. In my experience, all students are familiar with the concept of class participation for a grade. It has been part of our classroom dynamic since elementary school. This is also the case when it comes to undergraduate medical education. Leverage their familiarity with course discussions to keep your medical students focused and actively engaged in the learning process and rather than focusing on their grade. Plus, what a great way to develop peer learning in your course!   Students can learn from one another through participation in a lively flow of posts and replies on the discussion board. Or, students can take their time to develop posts and responses in the forum, only posting when they are confident the message is clear.

Make your rubric an Evaluation in Leo! This will create a feedback loop for the course, providing students with a weekly assessment of their participation. And, you can add values to the Evaluation form and then push it right to your Gradebook for auto-calculation in the overall course grade.These forms will also be saved to the student’s Academic Portrait and Evaluation Portal. Allowing you to share this feedback with the student's Mentors and other high level course staff which can be critical in ensuring student success. Interested in learning more about what Leo’s Academic Portrait feature can do? Check out our post on this awesome feature.

3. Get a Teaching Assistant

Discussion boards can foster a robust environment for student engagement and discourse, but they can also be a lot of work. This means you might need some help! In my last position, our distance education faculty had to opt out of receiving a Teaching Assistant. I believe this was critical for faculty satisfaction and success in the online environment. We found that this role not only provided essential support for the overall course, but teaching assistants often took the lead in assessing participation in regular course discussions. This is another place that rubrics will come in handy as it provides the framework teaching assistants need for when assessing participation in the online discussion.  It also can be a valuable coaching tool as they provide objective feedback to students regarding participation. In our situation, we also asked the teaching assistant to play the role of tech support in the course. What a great way to let faculty focus on instruction!

Ask your teaching assistant to create the first Discussion Board in Leo with their introduction as the Topic of discussion. Attach their bio and headshot to the instructions or even better embed a video introduction! Students can ask questions or share something they have in common with the teaching assistant or others in their class. In Leo, you can start building connections online from that very first Discussion Board.

4. Frequently manage and moderate your discussion

We have all been inundated by the stream of notifications resulting from responses in a group chat. One minute you think you’re all caught up with the conversation, then you look away for one hour to see  fifteen or more new messages. If you are not checking your discussion boards regularly, this could happen to you too. You will also likely miss meaningful opportunities to contribute and participate. Much of the research over the last decade indicates the success of discussion boards ties back to “active instructor participation, instructor feedback, and relevant questions that incorporate ideas” (Page & Abbott, 2020). This is especially important in medical education. Oliver & Shaw (2003) reveal that grading participation can be both a hindrance and an opportunity for asynchronous discussion in medical education. This is where moderation is going to be key and teaching assistants can be particularly valuable in regards to tracking and recording participation. However, instructor engagement is still one of the more impactful ways to encourage participation online (Page & Abbott, 2020). Advice I often shared with faculty was to focus their energy on redirecting the discussion or prompting students to elaborate on important points or topics. Let the teaching assistant worry about keeping track of posts and grading them. 

With Leo anyone can start and participate in a Discussion Board! Students can post a Topic or respond to Topics posted by others in the class. Course staff and faculty can then moderate these discussions, deleting threads as needed.

5. Let students lead

Discussion boards are the perfect chance to utilize team-based learning opportunities. Use your existing Small Groups and assign them to take the lead on a weekly discussion.  This will relieve faculty from creating all the discussion board content, which teaches students about the unique challenges of facilitating this type of course discussion. Talk about a win-win scenario! Students can develop leadership and teaching skills while faculty take a more passive role in managing the discussion.  Groups are an ideal approach for this type of assignment because each member can take on the role that best fits their skillset (Discussion, n.d.). Another strategy I found helpful was to highlight each student’s area of expertise. They can share their knowledge on a familiar topic through peer learning exercises.

Use your existing Small Groups in Leo! This will make adding team scoring a much quicker and painless process in the Gradebook and, if you make your Evaluation an Assignment with values, you can let your Gradebook do the work for you.  

These tips are only a few options for creating and managing asynchronous discussions in your MedEd online environment but there are plenty more out there! Check out my colleague’s article on Ed Tech Tools in MedEd for the latest tools to pair with your Leo Discussion Boards!  

Center for Teaching and Learning at University of Washington. (n.d.) Discussion. Retrieved on March 13, 2020, from
Oliver, M. & Shaw, G.P. (February 2003). Asynchronous Discussion in Support of Medical Education. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 7(1), 56–67. doi: 10.24059/olj.v7i1.1863.
Page, A., & Abbott, M. (2020, February 3). A Discussion About Online Discussion. Retrieved March 16, 2020, from