Using your discussion board effectively: asking students questions that promote practice and reflection

Students learn by doing and by reflecting on what they have learned. Including elements of practice and reflection in your course is one of the most effective, and simplest, teaching techniques you can use. And you can use your discussion board to do it.

The power of practice – low-stakes, high returns. Whether you are teaching new material or building on what you have already taught, the power of practice is proven.[1] Across multiple studies, practice tests outperform restudy, note-taking, and re-reading. Practice tests, in the form of questions or short assignments, help students retain what they have learned, identify gaps in their knowledge, and even remember non-tested material.[2]

Adding low-stakes practice tests to your lesson plans can:

  • Give you insight into what students know. That insight allows you to tailor a lesson or future exercises.
  • Break the illusion of fluency. Students may feel that they know something because it seems familiar. But familiarity does not equal fluency.[3] Practice tests can reveal gaps in understanding and help students fill those gaps.
  • Give students an opportunity to practice retrieval. Frequent, spaced, and varied retrieval practice is key to remembering what you learn.

The power of reflection – making sense of what students learn. Like practice, reflection is a crucial element in learning. Studies show that after some experience, reflecting on the experience is better than accumulating more experience. [4] After a concept has been covered, asking students to reflect on what they learned ensures that they take time to review new ideas and consider how those ideas connect with what they already know.[5] Taking time to think and write about past experiences improves understanding and performance.

Small changes can make a big difference. Using your discussion board, and without changing underlying course material, you can easily add both practice and reflection to your course. Below, we outline three use cases for low-stakes practice sessions, coupled with reflection to help you break up your lecture, give your students tailored feedback, and keep your students in the right zone for learning.

Use Case #1: One-shot intervention

You can ask students questions either before, during, or after class, challenging them to practice what they have learned.

Before Class: Using a flipped classroom approach, [6] send students reading material via your discussion board, asking them to write about what surprised them about the reading and what they want to hear more about. Student responses will allow you to get a sense of what they understand and will give you a chance to tailor your discussion. You can also use their responses as a springboard for your next topic.

During Class: Ask students a challenging question about a course concept and then group students into pairs or teams. Each pair or team can then report out responses, allowing you to build a dynamic discussion.

Towards the end of a course: Send students a discussion board question that asks them to help out their peers. Ask students to discuss a course concept that continues to confound them and respond to their peers. This exercise shows students that everyone struggles with something and that they can help their fellow students.

Use Case #2: Short-burst practice

Difficult concepts can require intense work to understand. You can set a course of structured practice by sending students a series of exercises designed to build on one another. For instance:

Day 1 - Before Class. Using a trial and error learning approach,[7] ahead of the class, you can send students a question or problem they aren’t quite ready to answer, challenging students to either predict what will happen or draw on what they know to try and answer the question. During class, discuss the topic, giving students enough information to answer the question.

Day 1 - After Class. Send students the same or similar question. Ask them to answer the question using what they learned in class and to compare their original response with their new response. This is a reflective exercise; the process of comparison (old answer, new answer) amplifies what students learned in your class.

Day 2 - Before class. Send students a difficult question that builds on previously learned concepts. Students should answer this question in teams and report out their responses in class.

Day 2 - After Class. You can send students a reflection question that asks them to summarize what they have learned or add any lingering questions that they have about the material.

Use Case # 3: Whole-course interactivity

You can use different learning approaches to significantly raise the level of interactivity throughout your course incorporating both practice and reflection exercises.

Before the first class. Using a trial and error approach, you can send students a question about a major course theme – setting the stage for your course and allowing you to gauge what your students know.

One week later. You can send students a question asking them to explain a class concept in their own words and to provide an outside-the-classroom example of that concept.

One week later. You can ask students a question based on assigned reading material and teams of students can get together in class to discuss and report out their responses.

One week later. You can send students a question about a difficult class concept, asking them to help out their peers in their replies.

One week later. Before the final class, you can ask students to revisit their initial response to the first discussion board question, using what they learned in your course to respond to the same question. Students will be able to see how far they have come in your course and you will be able to show them their progress by presenting their “before” and “after” responses as you wrap up the course.

Our products and platforms are designed to incorporate practice and reflection, driving student engagement, and empowering students to transfer what they learn. Learn more about our platforms and simulations.


  1. [1]

    Roediger III, H. L., Putnam, A. L., & Smith, M. A. (2011). Ten benefits of testing and their applications to educational practice. In Psychology of learning and motivation (Vol. 55, pp. 1-36). Academic Press.

  2. [2]

    Wissman, K. T., Rawson, K. A., & Pyc, M. A. (2011). The interim test effect: Testing prior material can facilitate the learning of new material. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 18(6), 1140-1147.

  3. [3]

    Carey, B. (2015). How we learn: the surprising truth about when, where, and why it happens. Random House Trade Paperbacks.

  4. [4]

    Di Stefano, G., Gino, F., Pisano, G. P., & Staats, B. R. (2016). Making experience count: The role of reflection in individual learning. Harvard Business School NOM Unit Working Paper, (14-093), 14-093.

  5. [5]

    Brown, P. C., Roediger III, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick. Harvard University Press.

  6. [6]

    Lai, C. L., & Hwang, G. J. (2016). A self-regulated flipped classroom approach to improving students’ learning performance in a mathematics course. Computers & Education, 100, 126-140.

  7. [7]

    Metcalfe, J. (2017). Learning from errors. Annual review of psychology, 68, 465-489.