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Using Discussion Boards and Wikis

Module by: The Cain Project in Engineering and Professional Communication. E-mail the author

Summary: Discussion boards and wikis can supplement class instruction, extend class discussion, or introduce new topics. If they are effectively designed, they can encourage students to think critically about course concepts and deepen their level of comprehension. This document describes ways to implement these strategies within a course.

Discussion boards and wikis are online tools that allow students to explore a topic and share ideas over time. In courses, the instructor typically assigns the topic and students are responsible for adding content, usually before a deadline set by the instructor. Both discussion boards and wikis differ from in-person discussions or online chats in the way the conversation advances. New information is added to discussion boards and wikis over time. The asynchronous format gives students time to formulate a response to new information before making their comments publicly. Discussion boards and wikis differ from each other in the way new information is displayed. Discussion boards contain an online conversation, which displays the initial topic or prompt followed by every response from newest to oldest. Wikis are an online collaborative document where only the most recent version is initially displayed. Each change to the wiki is tracked and viewable in the document history. OWL-Space, Rice University’s online course management software, contains tools for both discussion boards and wikis.

Discussion boards

Discussion boards allow students to discuss a topic without meeting in person or at a particular time online. Thus, this is a conversation that takes place over a period of time and possibly from a variety of locations. Students’ comments are listed on the discussion board with an online identifier, most recent first, awaiting responses from other students. The prompt with its collection of responses is called a thread. Effectiveness of discussion boards in courses depends on setting realistic expectations, integrating the activity into course design, and selecting practical prompts.

Setting expectations

Set guidelines for student contributions so that students know whether their contributions meet the evaluation criteria you will use. When setting guidelines, consider the frequency and quality of students’ posts. How many times are students expected to add information to a discussion topic? How long should each message be? Requiring students to make each post a minimum of three sentences will force them to contribute new information to a topic rather than just complementing and agreeing with a previous student.

The frequency with which students post will depend on the topic and on the number of students participating in the discussion. Topics that have one factual answer may limit the number of responses because students may feel that the topic was fully discussed in the first few posts. Even when discussing topics with multiple answers, students may have difficulty providing a unique answer if the pool of students allowed to participate is large. With a large class, consider dividing students into discussion board groups.

Should students observe conventional grammar and spelling rules? If students are not required to follow these rules, be explicit about what is allowed – colloquialisms, slang, text messaging abbreviations, and/or misspellings in proper grammatical context. For example, you might state in the guidelines, “There will be no point deduction for occasional misspelling; however, text messaging or other undefined abbreviations will decrease your grade by 2 points.”

What sources are students allowed to reference in their posts? Will you allow students to reference websites, newspapers, textbooks, or journal articles? The discussion topic and educational objective will influence your decision as to which references are appropriate.

In guidelines for student contributions, also indicate whether students can expect responses from the instructor. How will students receive feedback to know that the group discussion remains on topic and that the discussion has fully covered the information? You might state that “The instructor will monitor the discussion board and post questions to redirect discussion if the thread strays from the main topic.” How will individual students receive comments about their own performance? You may choose to email individual students with comments about their posts. Alternatively, you might identify outstanding posts that other students should use as models.

Integrate discussion boards into your class

By incorporating discussion board participation into the course grade, you assign value to student contributions. This has a dramatic effect on student involvement. Be clear how you will evaluate student posts by including the criteria that you will use to evaluate student participation in your prompt. Express guidelines for acceptable posts in accessible language. For example, rather than saying “Place your comments in context with other posts,”, you might say, “How do your ideas fit within the general ideas stated on the discussion board?” or “Compare/contrast your ideas to the post before yours.” If you will use identical criteria to evaluate multiple discussion board assignments, you may wish to list these guidelines in a separate discussion board that will remain available to students throughout the semester. Students can post responses to the guidelines as a thread if they require clarification about how discussion boards will be graded.

To avoid students waiting until near the evaluation deadline to post responses, set up incremental deadlines. For example, over a span of 9 days, there may be deadlines every 3 days requiring students to post during the beginning, middle, and end of the 9-day discussion. Allow a few days for students to contribute before each deadline.

Provide feedback or redirection by posting an instructor response. Students will frequently read and respond to only the most recent posts. To keep the discussion focused around the most important issues, you may occasionally summarize strategic points to redirect the discussion. If students are working with set incremental deadlines, summary posts from the instructor are a convenient way to reframe the topic at the conclusion of each deadline period.

Creating your prompt

Discussion prompts should include both a multi-answer question and instructions to indicate appropriate response and interaction guidelines. State deadlines in the prompt. Encourage students to establish an online conversation by providing suggestions for how students should interact with comments from other students. Should students make connections between their post and previous contributions? Are students allowed to question or critique ideas introduced by another student? Should students summarize or acknowledge the main points from previous posts that are the basis for their ideas?

Questions that are solely fact-based will inhibit participation because students will find difficulty adding novel information after only a few posts. Use questions with multiple correct answers. Examples of questions for discussion prompts are included below.

  1. Questions that ask for more evidence
    • Provide examples to support the argument that …
    • What data is this claim based on?
  2. Questions that ask for clarification
    • Give a different illustration of this point.
  3. Open-ended questions
  4. Linking or extension
    • Relate ideas to a previous topic.
    • Challenge or support an idea.
  5. Hypothetical questions
  6. Cause and effect
    • What is likely to be the effect of …?
  7. Summary and Synthesis
    • What are the most important ideas related to this topic?
    • Identify unresolved or contentious ideas.


Wiki, originally derived from the Hawaiian word for “fast” has also become known as an acronym for “What I Know Is” because the content is both quickly reviewed and updated by individual users. Wikis are an ongoing collaboration in which students create and revise a single online document. The most recent revision is displayed with links to access previous versions that track each change made to the wiki. Users can revert to a previous version if erroneous content has been added. Thus, the information contained there is both created and policed by users of the site. Tips for using the OWL-Space wiki are viewable when the tool is selected. Like discussion boards, faculty act as facilitators rather than information bearers and student participation will hinge on incorporating the wiki into the course outcome and setting clear evaluation guidelines.

Uses for wikis in courses

Wikis can be used to help students to work in groups to create a finished document. Because the wiki stores each version of the document in its history including an annotation of which student makes changes, the instructor has the unique opportunity to retrieve information about the development of the document and the individual group members’ contributions to the final product. Students working within a similar subject area may benefit from an annotated bibliography wiki. Students could add or revise annotations of articles that are relevant to the topic.

A special consideration about using wikis in courses is who possess the right to be an author. In wikipedia, for example, anyone who can access the site can potentially be an author. If you would like the wiki project to be limited to your students or a group of students, it should be password protected or available only through a non-public site on OWL-Space or other limited-access course management software.

Wiki evaluation

Assigning a grade to a wiki presents a new challenge. As in a team project, a group of students produces only one final document. Will you grade only the final product, or will individual students receive credit for their contributions? To incorporate both, consider balacing between a team grade based on the quality of the finished product with an individual participation grade based on substantial contributions to the product made by each student.

References and Resources

  1. “Designing Effective Asynchronous Onlline Discussion.” Mary Schuller accessed on 22 May 2008.
  2. Beaudin, Bart P. 1999. “Keeping Online Asynchronous Discussion On Topic.” Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks 3(2): 41-53.
  3. Walker, Greg. 2005. “Critical Thinking in Asynchronous Discussion.” International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning 2(6): 15-21.
  4. OWL-Space ( OWL-Space is an online course management program that includes both discussion board and wiki tools as of Jan 2008. This is available only to Rice University faculty and students. Similar course management programs may be available at other institutions.

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