Optimal Learning Through Peer-Responses to Online Discussion Boards

People Discussing

Written by Greg Price, Program Director for the Master of Arts in Leadership program at CityU’s School of Applied Leadership

Learning in discussion boards should be enjoyed by everyone in the classroom. Getting it right, at the beginning, creates a positive culture in the classroom that can continue throughout the term. While instructors do create interesting questions for the students primary posts, they often miss the value of the peer response posts to increase the overall classroom learning.  Prompts for discussion posts that include peer responses are usually written so that students only need to post their agreement with or present their own opinion about a peer’s initial post. This type of secondary post is the easiest to write and they economize personal time to complete the discussion assignment. However, they add little to no value to learning, do little to engage anyone, and create a boring culture to the classroom and the discussion board threads themselves.

Presenting Another Way

First, consider writing discussion prompts that cannot be easily answered and that require peers to add to the conversation. Questions that encourage self-reflection will do this. The best questions are those where students are encouraged to read the course text and conduct their own research prior to posting their initial thread. In this way, students become interested in the learning, they prepare quality initial posts that contain critical thinking, and include supporting research. These posts can also be aligned with the course outcome aligned with an upcoming assignment.

Next, ask students to critically analyze their peer’s initial post, then develop a response that challenges those ideas. Ask students to find an area within the post that may need more clarity, more depth, or challenge the student’s assumption through the presentation of other research not just opinions. It is this next step that creates a richer classroom environment where the instructor can challenge the student and where students can elevate their cognitive processes.

Students can elevate their peer-responses by asking probing questions that encourage the student to engage in a more meaningful and deeper manner or by presenting additional ideas from the research that may challenge what is being said in the initial post. Engaging this way has several benefits.  The peer benefits by developing critical thinking skills that teach them to look at ideas and research from many different angles.  The student benefits from the feedback that allows them to see their ideas developed or perhaps where they missed an important point in the lesson.  The class benefits because now there is a conversation instead of short responses of agreement.  Increasing the peer interaction brings a richer educational experience to all students in the classroom and creates a culture that supports deeper level thinking.

Setting up Learning Expectations

In a typical discussion forum, students are to create an original post and respond to two other peers to receive an “At Standard” discussion forum grade. In order to set the expectation for increased learning, the instructor must clearly define and set the expectations at the onset and include them in the rubric.  Does your rubric evaluate critical thinking in the discussion boards? In addition to the rubric, instructors need to communicate their expectations using multiple messages in multiple channels; such as in the first week’s announcement, at the top of the discussion forum, and in a video announcement that specifically addresses the requirements and expectations.

Feedback in the Grading Rubric

When grading, should a student’s secondary post present an agreement or they post their own opinion, simply remind the student to challenge him/herself by critically analyzing the ideas in the initial peer post. Encourage the student to pose a question that develops a more thoughtful secondary response in the discussion. This often works as it gives students more to think about, supports the student’s self-efficacy in critical thinking development, and develops a discussion forum that engages all students in the class.  Encourage the student to find additional research on the topic being discussed.  Peer-responses should be about furthering the learning not just a requirement.

Ultimately, we are all learners.  The process of expanding the classroom discussion is ongoing.  Sometimes you will have a hit, sometimes a flop.  Either way you will be learning and that should always be the goal.


Published January 13, 2016



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