Photo of two people talking on a bridge next to a bike.

Tired of “post once, respond twice”? Rethinking discussion board activities

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

Discussion board activities offer an opportunity for students to share their knowledge, debate, and otherwise interact with each other. 

Have your students been complaining about discussion board assignments, calling them “busy work” or a “waste of time”?

Students may get bored with the standard post and reply discussion structure, or they may not feel like it is an effective way to connect with classmates. Here are three potential alternatives to the typical “post-once, respond twice” discussion structure that have unique pedagogical values. 

Note: If discussion board activities are a regular part of your class, you can choose to change up the structure from week to week – just remember to provide students with clear instructions and expectations for each discussion activity.

The Fishbowl

How to do it: Split the class in half. On day 1, group A posts a reading response, a response to a reflection question, or some other kind of post. On day 2, group B reads the first set of posts and writes response posts. These can be responses to individual students, or analyses of the discussion as a whole. For the next discussion, group B does the first round of posts and group A does the second round. 

What students learn: Sometimes the best way to learn is to respond to material before hearing from other perspectives. Other times, it is more helpful to see how other people are interpreting a given resource, and use their thoughts to help construct your own analysis. This discussion structure gives students a chance to learn in both ways. 

The Chain Reaction 

Adapted from JR Dingwal

How to do it: Student 1 posts a question about a reading or other class material. Student 2 provides an answer to Student 1’s question and poses a new question. Student 3 answers Student 2, and poses a new question, etc. If a student ever does not know the answer, they can make an attempt and ask the next poster to help them. The order of posts can be determined on a “first-come, first-serve” basis or based on a fixed order (e.g. alphabetical order). 

What students learn: Everyone in the class can contribute both questions and answers to the class discussion. Questions are integral to any discussion, and a rich discussion should prompt lots of new questions. 

Role Play 

Adapted from University of Wisconsin Extended Campus

How to do it: Assign students to a viewpoint or role within a complex situation (which could be a historical event, a business or professional scenario, or a work of literature). Students then post in response to a question while playing their role, supporting their post with evidence. Optionally, students can review the overall discussion and write a follow-up reflection post.

What students learn: Students might have the opportunity to consider a different experience from their own. Viewpoints that are less commonly heard in the classroom can also be surfaced using this structure. 

Unsure about how to implement or adapt these discussion structures for your class? Connect with an instructional designer!

Photo by Nima Izadi on Unsplash

Reading time estimation from

Sarah Silverman is an Instructional Designer in the Hub for Teaching and Learning Resources at the University of Michigan – Dearborn. You can read more about Sarah on her author page.