If you ask a student to tell you a story about their weekend or describe their favorite show, odds are they’ll provide a detailed description complete with anecdotes that—whether they know it or not—show a depth of understanding in their story that you would love to see them demonstrate in their papers.
Telling stories is a key component of student learning. Through stories, students are able to create an understanding of the materials presented in class. However, when tasked with sharing stories that relate to what they’ve learned, students aren’t always as forthcoming with the material.
Thankfully, due to modern technology, there are many options beyond the traditional classroom share-out for students to show their understanding. One of those options includes virtual discussion boards. Educators can turn to this tool as an option for facilitating classroom rapport.
My students start each day with a post on the school learning platform’s discussion board. The virtual discussion board works as a digital poster board for students to share ideas and connections. Posts include commentary about the nightly readings, analysis questions with thoughtful answers, or even a class check-in on the events of the weekend. Although we use the learning platform Blackboard, there are many free online options that educators can use. These include Padlet, Google Classroom, and Wakelet.
I’ve found the following four key benefits from student-led discussion boards in my ninth-grade classroom.
1. Discussion Boards Are Interactive and Future-Forward
Discussion boards present students with an opportunity to prepare for a future that is continuing to evolve digitally. My goal is always to prepare my students for a world and workforce where they have the skills they need to succeed, and using virtual discussion boards is one way to accomplish this goal. With teacher facilitation, discussion boards provide an opportunity for students to learn proper digital etiquette when interacting with peers, disagreeing, and adding substance to their answers.
I coupled my use of discussion boards with class PowerPoint lessons in online etiquette and media literacy. By the end of the first semester of discussion board usage, my students know the appropriate behaviors for how to disagree and commit, provide an example for their disagreement, and defend their answer with evidence from the text. As a result of consistently using discussion boards, I saw an increase in both the length of students’ discussion board responses and the substance of their posts.
2. Discussion Boards Foster Student-Led Learning
As a language arts teacher, I have a level of flexibility in my classroom that allows me to vary the prompts to my discussion board questions, which is a practice that many subject matter teachers can apply to their own classrooms. This variety allows students to show their understanding through an array of question stems. For example, I’ve used question stems such as prompts that tie into the literary term discussed in class, text-to-self connection stems, and inquiry prompts at the start of a new unit.
Although I provide the question stem, my students are still the drivers of the conversation. Through their responses to peers’ questions, students are able to lead the discussion and pivot it to conversations that they think would aid in their knowledge. This might mean that students take the conversation to a topic that I hadn’t originally planned, but in the process, it builds a new level of understanding with the material. This student-led aspect not only expands on their understanding in relation to the question being asked but also allows them to explore topics and conversations they might not have yet considered.
3. Discussion Boards Don’t Have to Be Grade-Based
Discussion boards allow me to check for understanding without tying a grade to their completion. Although numeric value is a good progress point for students, it can also be seen as a detriment when students feel swayed by the impact of a grade and make sure that their answer fits the teacher’s goals instead of their own.
Teachers and students can use discussion boards to access learning without awarding numerical value to it, which alleviates the pressure and fear of grading. This lack of fear allows students to elaborate on their answers with their true feelings instead of simply stating what they think the teacher is looking for in their answers.
4. Discussion Boards Act as a Digital Portfolio
Discussion boards create a digital portfolio of units that learners can turn to for review. Not only do discussion boards allow students to track their understanding throughout a unit, but when boards are used in a system that stores user content (such as Canvas or Blackboard), students can access information when they need to review for exams or refresh their memory on concepts presented.
My students frequently turn to the discussion board when reviewing materials for the summative assessments at the end of each unit for the book that the class reads. They are able to start at the beginning of the unit posts and work forward, reviewing their thoughts and responses in the process. The combination of access to their materials and the ability to see their peers’ responses creates a library of information that they wouldn’t have been able to find in a simple review guide.