Developing Deep Reflection in Discussion Boards

One of the most prominent features of an online classroom is the discussion board. When used effectively, discussion boards can be a key factor in fostering student engagement and motivation. More specifically, online discussions allow for deep learning on course content. However, despite their widespread use in the online setting, not every discussion board is an effective learning opportunity. In this article, we’ll focus on two methods instructors can use to foster deep learning through online discussion boards.

Instructor Participation in Discussion Boards

Current research indicates that discussion boards that foster deep learning allow for knowledge building and provide opportunities for students to be active participants in the learning process (Guo, Chen, Lei, & Wen, 2014). However, not just any discussion board can produce such results. Jo, Park, and Lee (2017) note that unfacilitated forums don’t foster effective discussion or knowledge construction among students. Guo et al. (2014) highlight research that demonstrates that discussion forums tend to remain at a superficial level unless the instructor actively facilitates the discussion (see also Williams, Jaramillo, & Pesko, 2015).

But what does “active facilitation” look like for instructors? Active facilitation simply means that instructors are involved in the discussion form; they are reading and replying to student posts. Instructors are sometimes tempted to leave discussion forums to the students. This may be because they’re busy, not interested in participating, or uncertain how to interact in the discussion board. However, instructor involvement in the discussion board is essential in influencing students’ level of cognitive engagement with the course content.

When instructors actively participate in discussion boards, they engage students and their ideas as well as the course content. In other words, instructors can use discussion forums as an opportunity to guide and instruct students on an individual level. Such engagement helps foster community building within the online class. (For more ways to engage students online, see the our article “Engagement in Online Courses.”) According to Galen Davis (2018), building a community of learners carries with it several benefits:

Benefits Description
Enrichment of Ideas
Leads to more nuanced understanding of ideas
Deep Learning
Leads to a deeper understanding of concepts
Improved Communication Skills
Rehearses communication skills
Increased Motivation
Increases students’ awareness of the course’s value and their ability to succeed
Awareness of Individual Responsibility
Develops an awareness of one’s responsibility in the success of the whole

When instructors enhance their engagement in a course, they help build instructor presence, which in turn enhances students’ learning experience (Davis, 2018). In short, the online instructor is “one of the key heuristics to promote learning” (Guo et al., 2014, p. 195).

What, then, can you do to be involved in discussion forums? As our next tip suggests, one answer lies in the quality of instructor feedback. If you want your students to exhibit deep learning in their discussion posts, then your own posts need to exhibit active engagement as well (McCarthy & DeLuca, 2010).

Kinds of Instructor Feedback in Discussion Boards

Many instructors might think that feedback belongs solely as comments on summative assessments. However, feedback is particularly valuable in online discussion forums. Guo et al. (2014) define instructor feedback as “formative comments…given to maintain idea exchanges/improvement, keep conversations on the right track, promote deeper inquiry, and help learners to link practices to theoretical principles” (p. 196). As such, feedback that seeks to encourage deeper learning moves beyond “good job” or “I agree.”

As the instructor, you’re the subject matter expert, so make sure to use your experience to guide students into thinking beyond the textbook or assignment. Encourage students when they make connections or give insights that demonstrate some level of deep learning. Ask them thought-provoking questions to foster “in-depth and reflective discussion” within the forum or a particular thread.

Finally, if students’ discussions are veering off track, respectfully interrupt their dialogue by resetting the conversation, asking clarifying questions, or providing insight that builds on their earlier conversation (Guo et al., 2014, p. 196).

Williams et al. (2015) suggest that instructors can encourage deep reflection by providing students with explicit expectations for discussion posts and replies. You can do so by:

  • Clarifying the differences between surface discussion and deep reflection
  • Providing feedback to students regarding the level of their discourse
  • Providing examples of work that evidences deep reflection (p. 61)

Davis (2018) lists various questions types you can use to guide students’ discussion: 

Question Type Description
Challenge Interrogate assumptions, conclusions, or interpretations
Relational Ask for comparisons of themes, ideas, or issues
Diagnostic Probe motives or causes
Action Call for a conclusion or action
Cause/Effect Explore causal relationships
Extension Expand the discussion into new areas
Hypothetical Pose a change in the facts or issues
Priority Seek to identify the most important issue(s)
Summary Elicit synthesis

In summary, you play an essential role in the discussion forum. The quality and type of feedback you provide in the forum helps students to go beyond superficial thinking into deeper reflection.


Takeaways from this article include:

  • If discussion boards are not facilitated properly, students tend to engage them only at a surface level.
  • Instructor presence in the discussion board is essential to ensure deeper reflection by the students.
  • Instructors can provide feedback, examples of exemplary work, and clear, specific expectations for student activity in the discussion board.

Discussion boards are an essential tool in online learning for instructors to engage their students in ongoing dialogue and create learning opportunities. However, without active instructor presence in the discussion board, students’ levels of engagement are likely to remain at the surface level. When instructors provide specific expectations for and examples of deep reflection in the discussion board, students are more likely to engage with the course content on a deeper level.


Alzahrani, M. G. (2017). The effect of using online discussion forums on students’ learning. TOJET: The Turkish Online Journal of Educational Technology, 16(1), 164–176.

Davis, G. (2018, July 18). Discussion forums [PowerPoint slides]. Louisville, KY: The Learning House, Inc.

Guo, W., Chen, Y., Lei, J., & Wen, Y. (2014). The effects of facilitating feedback on online learners’ cognitive engagement: Evidence from the asynchronous online discussion. Education Sciences, 4, 193–208.

Jo, I., Park, Y., & Lee, H. (2017). Three interaction patterns on asynchronous online discussion behaviours: A methodological comparison. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 33, 106–122.

McCarthy, J., Smith, J. L., & DeLuca, D. (2010). Using online discussion boards with large and small groups to enhance learning of assistive technology. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 22, 95–113.

Williams, S. S., Jaramillo, A., & Pesko, J. C. (2015). Improving depth of thinking in online discussion boards. The Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 16(3), 45–66.

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