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Providing students with examples and best practices in how to write online discussion posts can alleviate student fears and promote better submissions.

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Online discussion boards serve as a tool for professors to connect with students asynchronously and promote thoughtful engagement with learning material outside of class time.

However, many faculty members face challenges in facilitating productive and meaningful engagement on online student discussion boards, which can be due to students’ worries around their contributions.

“Students approach discussion assignments with hesitancy due to different classroom fears and uncertainties about their writing abilities,” says Marva Brewington, a general education professor at American InterContinental University. “This uncertainty is what often leads to posts that are incomplete, shallow or off-topic.”

To improve student engagement, Brewington hosted three short synchronous “labs” to model discussion board expectations.

By performing a demonstration of how a discussion board should function or what information students should include in their submissions, professors can reframe the assignment and achieve the desired outcomes from the activity.

“When students feel they can, then they will, but when they feel they can’t, then they won’t!” Brewington explains.

How it works: Brewington offered three voluntary 30-minute labs to students in her first-year experience course during the first week of the term to teach them best practices in discussion-post work.

Each lab identifies how to read, review and create responses to discussion board questions, as well as use the grading rubric to guide responses.

The three labs include:

  1. How to write a good post. Teaching students to read the question and develop a strategy to respond completely and comprehensively. Students identify key words in the question and reference the rubric.
  2. How to infuse material into posts. Training students how to reference and cite sources in a discussion post. Using APA citations, students learn to note and incorporate course content into responses to demonstrate learning.
  3. How to write a good peer responses. Aiding students in developing substantive responses that further discussion. Students use a rubric as guidance in response requirements and then tie the two lab topics into their responses, as well as pose follow-up questions or offer suggestions and insights to their peers.

The efficacy: Through the labs, Brewington has been able to track student attendance and subsequent improvements to their work.

Most FYE discussion forums received around 40 to 50 percent engagement prior to the lab learning, Brewington explains. After the labs, student engagement grew, averaging closer to 60 percent or higher each session. Students’ confidence increased, as well.

“Student feedback has also shown that they have overwhelmingly found the labs beneficial and left them no longer intimidated to engage with their peers in discussion forums,” Brewington says.

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