Faculty Focus


Should You Let Students Lead Discussion Boards?

Several years ago, a colleague suggested that having students lead discussions in the online classroom would be a good idea. I agreed and searched the literature for research on this topic but found nothing. No one at that point had been looking at having students moderate, or they hadn’t written about it. I still thought it was a good idea and decided to pursue this line of research by having my students moderate and follow up with an end-of-course student questionnaire.

Based on my research and experience of having students moderate, I developed the following approach.

I started by developing the following criteria describing how a moderator—whether instructor or student—should behave in an online course based on the literature and what I do in my online courses:

  • Focus the discussion on course content and encourage new ideas.
  • Initiate further discussion on questions or observations.
  • Find unifying threads and communicate them.
  • Draw attention to opposing perspectives, different directions, and dissenting opinions.
  • Encourage debate.
  • Summarize and post your report about the discussion.

To help prepare students to moderate discussions, I explain why they are being asked to do this. Developing leadership skills is an important learning objective for my students, and moderating will help them develop leadership skills and learn a topic more thoroughly. Students select the topics they would like to moderate, which also serves as a motivator.

During the first few weeks of the course, I model how to moderate threaded discussions, and I am always amazed that they pretty much do what I do. For each discussion, students post their weekly assignments to the discussion board. Most of these assignments are designed so that each student’s submission is unique—they all do the same assignment, but each does it in a different context. For example, I teach a course on the World Wide Web and have students investigate use of webquests. Each student selects two webquests to critique, describing how the webquests do or do not address criteria based on assigned readings. Students also write about how they might use webquests in their own classrooms. The students post these assignments to the discussion board so that everyone can see everyone else’s assignments. I make comments, give feedback, ask questions, and write a summary at the end of each discussion.

Students work in pairs when they moderate discussions. They are not required to do the assignments for the unit they moderate, but they are expected to be prepared to lead the discussion on the topic. Each student moderates once per semester, and I have found (based on observation and student surveys) that having students moderate has the following benefits:

  • A variety of feedback—Students have told me that they like different types of feedback, it’s like having multiple instructors in the course.
  • More conversation—I do notice that often there is more conversation. Students say they feel less inhibited because it’s not Dr. Thormann who’s asking them a question. Although when I moderate the discussion I try to be very open and ask them probing questions, it’s still Dr. Thormann. Several students said that having classmates moderate is less intimidating. One wrote, “It levels the playing field.”
  • Students take ownership—Some students mentioned that they like to guide the direction of the discussion so it becomes more their class. It gives them the responsibility to shape the discussion and bring it to where they want it to go.
  • Good citizenship—If everyone’s moderating they know that they’re going to be in the same boat at some point. They want to be good citizens so that their classmates will also participate when their turns come.
  • Improves communication—Some students have stated that moderating stretches their communication skills, prompts them to be good listeners, and forces them to concentrate more on the discussion.
  • Moderators see the big picture—Students have said that they grasp the knowledge of the subject better when they moderate than when doing the ordinary assignments. They get to see the big picture. They get to observe their classmates in a different way.
  • Gets students to read all the posts—The hard and sad fact is that not all of my students read every posting except when they moderate. That’s where they get the depth, and my guess is that if they moderate and find it gratifying, they start to read more in subsequent discussions.

Limitations of Having Students Lead Discussion Boards
Having students moderate is not necessarily appropriate for every course, and I don’t use this method in all my online courses. It seems to work best in courses where students are gathering knowledge rather than making knowledge. It just doesn’t work in a thesis course, where students are doing research and making knowledge and things are very individualized. In the thesis course, students are very focused on their own topics.

Even when the course lends itself to this approach, you need to be aware of the following issues that might arise:

  • It’s very time consuming.
  • Sometimes classmates resent being questioned by another classmate. I had one student who felt very strongly that the teacher should be teaching. In response, I told her that I know a fair amount but not everything.
  • If the moderator for a particular assignment isn’t good, the class suffers.

Advice for Student-Led Discussion Boards
Here are some suggestions for helping students moderate effectively:

  • Have students moderate in pairs. This can make the process less burdensome for each student, but they may need help making this partnership work. I make suggestions for dividing the work equitably. For example, each partner can be responsible for moderating half of the discussion, or one partner can respond to the initial posting and the other can respond to the follow-up.
  • Give them clear instructions.
  • Model what you think a good moderator should do.
  • Send out reminders a week or so before students are scheduled to moderate. I send the moderators a list of what they need to do to moderate, encourage them to ask me questions about moderating, and let them know that they do not need to do the week’s assignment.
  • Give positive feedback. I send feedback via email and sometimes in the announcements section of the course. They need to know that they’ve done a good job.

Joan Thormann is a professor in the Technology in Education Division in the School of Education at Lesley University.

Excerpted from Student Moderators in Online Courses, Online Classroom, March 2008.