Helping Students Write Worthy Discussion Board Posts

gilbert db worthyIn an online course, the discussion board can be a place for lively dialogues among students. Ideally, the course facilitator only moderates by pinning model threads or by adding additionally commentary to guide students.

If this doesn’t sound like your course, you’re not alone. Perhaps you’ve sent reminders, contacted individual students, replied to more student posts in hopes of spurring engagement, or provided lengthy feedback about discussion board expectations. And perhaps you’re despondent because these efforts never pay off as much as you’d hope. Some students respond, but habits aren’t formed, and much of your time is wasted.

I know this because I’ve been there.

The problem is these interventions only aim to influence student’s behavior: to encourage students to become more engaged. But what if we ignored engagement for a second and focused on something else and got better original posts?

In the field of performance analysis and human performance technology, engineer Thomas Gilbert argues that there is too much attention given to behavior and not enough on accomplishments. When managers praise workers’ dedication, effort, and long hours, that’s praising behavior. This is counterproductive because it de-emphasizes accomplishments, which is what workers leave behind when they go. From an industry standpoint, this means how many widgets they produce or how many sales they make. But what about teachers and online students? In education, there is this same trend to praise a student’s grit (behavior) and mindfulness (also behavior), but there is less emphasis on accomplishments, partly because education struggles with agreeing upon definitions for accomplishments. What do we expect students to accomplish? High grades and test scores? Finished products and presentations? Or experiences? I’ll come back to this.

Now, Gilbert acknowledges that behavior plays a role in one’s performance, saying, “In performance, behavior is a means, and its consequence is the end” (Diane Gayeski’s paraphrase from the HTP Toolkit). Since the end-performance is the only thing that matters, there is no reason to try to change a person’s behavior or performance unless it adds value to the overall performance. In business, that means money. In schools, that means learning.

Screen clipping from chapter one of Gilbet's Human competence: Engineering worthy performance

Screen clipping from chapter one of Gilbet’s Human competence: Engineering worthy performance

Valuable performance, or as Gilbert names it “worthy performance” is defined as Worthy Performance = Accomplishments / Behavior.  To increase worthy performance, you need to increase accomplishments or decrease behavior (interpret as time, effort, and costs). You might think this sounds like “Work smarter, not harder,” but that isn’t quite right. Really, we shouldn’t be thinking about the work at all – at least at first – only the accomplishments.

So what do students accomplish in discussion board? Posts, replies, and connections. What students don’t accomplish is engagement, a behavior. Online teachers can measure engagement by counting the number of times a post was “read” or the number of times a student accessed the discussion board, but this may be a wasted effort. Increasing how much students read or view a post is only beneficial if it leads to improved posts, replies, and connections. If teachers help students author better posts, students will be more engaged, if not with each other, than definitely with the assignment.

Worthy Discussion Board Posts

Before trying to change the overall performance of students’ posts, we should identify characteristics of a valuable discussion board post:

  • Personal reflections on specific details in the content
  • Presentation of new information (sites, videos, resources) with analysis or synthesis
  • Interpretations of difficult content that show analysis and synthesis
  • Connections between content and other disciplines
  • Arguments made with evidence

In short, worthy discussion board posts are evidence of students thinking deeply about the content.

Once you have identified these goals, then you can think about how to influence students’ behavior on the discussion board to make it more likely students produce valuable discussion board posts. According to Gilbert, behavior is a product of individual characteristics and the environment, and his Behavior Engineering Model offers a structure teachers can use when thinking about improving discussion board posts.

Gilbert BEM

Screen clipping from Gilbert’s Behavior Engineering Model (BEM)

Although the table’s intended audience is the business sector, teachers are familiar with the same concepts of data, instruments, incentives, knowledge, capacity, and motives. Of these six, let’s only focus on knowledge and the questions that square addresses:

Do students have the skills and knowledge needed to perform as expected?

Is well-designed training that matches requirements of performance available?

Exemplary students will, no doubt, have both the knowledge and skills to perform, but for the other students, how can the discussion board topic itself close the gap between worthy discussion board posts and… well, the rest?

Closing the Gap and Scaffolding

Really, what teachers need to consider is providing scaffolding within the topic. This needs a two-pronged approach: give students the knowledge they need right there in the topic and provide scaffolding so they can work at a greater skill level.

Ways to include knowledge:

  • Link to outside resources
  • Include images and diagrams
  • Embed videos or audio
  • Show examples

Ways to include scaffolding:

  • Offer sentence stems
  • Use templates
  • Model the assignment in a synchronous session or in a recording

One Example

gilbert db 3

The purpose of this topic is to have student practice writing a persuasive/argumentative essay. Students would then build on their initial thoughts here to write a full essay for the unit. Although students did well responding to the prompts, few posts included evidence or explanations for their reasons.

I collaborated with another teacher at GAVS to improve this topic. First, we narrowed the choices to ones that consistently sparked students’ interests, then we found outside sources about each topic. We modeled the assignment and worked with students during a synchronous session to help students understand the process. This process was then scripted in the topic. Finally, we used a graphic to show exactly what in-text citations were.

The posted topic

The posted topic


We used Padlet to hold the resources. We used a combination of articles, videos, and editorial cartoons to get students thinking.

We used Padlet to hold the resources. We used a combination of articles, videos, and editorial cartoons to get students thinking.

Better Accomplishes with Less Time and Effort

Although this example requires more time to create, it saves time by eliminating a majority of work (behavior) a teacher does while moderating the discussion. Teachers can pin worthy posts as exemplars for the rest of the students, and constructive criticism can refer back to the topic. Better still, since the changes are saved in the LMS, the modifications can be easily transferred to other sessions.

It also saves students time. Students don’t need to search the Internet to find evidence (after all, that isn’t the objective of this topic), and those who want to, may still do so. Students who attend or watch the modelled instruction already have a head start, which also has the added benefit of encouraging students to attend synchronous sessions.

Finally, the original post is better supported with evidence from specific sources.

Increased Engagement

Even if your course does not have a lively community of learners, and instead your students wait until the night of to complete their work, these modifications do increase the level of engagement between the student and the content. And until more online course are designed with flexible content with more collaboration integrated into the curriculum, where students must genuinely provide content, this engagement counts.

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