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Authentic Learning: Discussion Boards as a Critical Thinking Mechanism


The EvoLLLution | Authentic Learning: Discussion Boards as a Critical Thinking Mechanism
Discussion boards can be a very effective mechanism to promote authentic learning among students, so long as faculty take a leading role.

It is becoming more common for faculty to integrate the use of a learning management systems (LMS) into their teaching in both face-to-face and online courses. While there are many different ways that the LMS may enhance a course, one of the most prevalent ways is through the utilization of discussion boards. This tool provides faculty an opportunity to promote critical thinking beyond the classroom walls. In the lens of authentic learning, it is important to provide a relevant learning environment for students as well as have avenues for students to demonstrate their learning. Discussion boards provide a platform where students can demonstrate their critical thinking ability, but also provide faculty with formative data to identify gaps in student learning.

Discussion boards are a common learning activity in online learning, but also in traditional face-to-face settings. In online environments, it is the primary way students learn; they ask questions and disseminate their ideas to their peers and through discussion boards. While online discussions may not be the equivalent of speaking face-to-face with another person, there is a deeper level of thinking that goes into responding to others through writing. There have been many studies that also credit discussion boards for their ability to engage students who “passively participate” in class given that there is less direct social pressure to a post than speaking in front of peers. Of course, the success of a discussion board is largely dependent on faculty.

Getting students to think critically doesn’t always happen organically, but rather relies on the expectations faculty set for student’s discussion posts as well as the quality of questions they provide. It is important to set expectations for students and hold them accountable for following such expectations. A common practice for using discussion boards is to enforce a posting requirement. It is also helpful to set expectations for the level of content within a post, so that students will respond by saying more than “I agree.” When it comes to guiding student thinking about a topic, it is a best practice to scaffold their thinking. This entails connecting student prior knowledge to the new content. This does not have to be time consuming, but entails framing discussion questions around the prior concepts.

To better exemplify the differences between good and poor questioning techniques, here are some examples of common problems with discussion board prompts and how to reframe them to promote students’ critical thinking.

1. Questions that do not engage students in the critical thinking process

For example: In your opinion, do you think smoking should be banned?  Why or why not? Because the instructions do not include any expectations of what should be included in the answer, a student may answer the question very simply—yes, because it smells. That could be an acceptable answer, but since we really want students to engage in the course content, with their peers and instructors, a better way to ask the question could be: Do you think smoking should be banned?  Provide three well thought out reasons to support your position using class readings, discussions and outside materials. Remember to cite your resources.

2. Questions that require rote learning

These are things that students can simply restate such as steps of a process or providing definitions especially when only using class resources.  For example, What is the video creation process?  Most students will just provide an answer that restates the process.  A better way to ask the question could be:  As we have covered in class, there are a series of important steps in the video creation process.  However, there are details that may not be included because it is a basic process.  Based on the type of video project you will be creating, build your process to include the additional steps you think you will need.  Using what you have read, our class discussions and other items you have read/accessed, provide your detailed steps to create your video. Please include your rationale as to why each item is important in your process.  Don’t forget to cite your sources where and when appropriate.

3. Questions based around a scenario

Scenarios can require you to give more direction to the student, but the outcomes can be extremely rewarding for you and the students.  If students are not provided enough direction, there is a good chance that they will miss opportunities to demonstrate their learning, which is frustrating and won’t allow you to evaluate their learning.  For example: You are in your car and all of a sudden you see several cars collide.  What would you do?  A better way to address this scenario could be to develop a narrative around the question you are asking.  By providing more details to the scenario, including things like where this is taking place and what type of circumstances they encounter, students can then incorporate specific materials to solve a problem or determine how to respond in a situation based on content covered in a specific lesson or unit.  Scenarios can be created to work through the whole course; telling a story from start to finish to help the student engage in the content.  Using this type of scenario lets students keep applying what they have already learned as well as applying new knowledge.


Just as the use of mastery quizzing for vocabulary and concepts encourages students to learn more deeply, discussion boards also reinforce learning by enabling students to apply correct terminology and concepts in their discussion posts. When promoting an authentic learning environment, this type of reinforcement is key for promoting deeper student understanding. As noted in the examples in this article, questions can typically be easily modified to encourage better responses from students. And remember, the beauty of implementing authentic learning practices is that it should happen incrementally and organically based on what’s feasible and comfortable for you.

This is the third installment of an ongoing series by Theresa Gilliard-Cook and Brandon West discussing different facets of authentic learning. To read the series introduction, and to see the other posts in the series, please click here.

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Next installment coming soon