Tips for Writing Discussion Questions

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Modified from flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/31049933@N08/2914244493/
Modified from flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/31049933@N08/2914244493/

Have you ever experienced a class discussion in which the most vocal students make up much of the participation while the rest of the class seems shy, quiet, or underprepared? Or even worse, has a weather emergency cancelled a class discussion altogether? Flipping the discussion modality from face-to-face to online could help alleviate these problems.

One of the major differences between the online and the face-to-face environments is the way in which students approach discussion questions. While discussions in the traditional classroom can be spontaneous and viewed as less important as other traditional learning activities, discussions in an online forum require more forethought and invite greater potential for accomplishing learning objectives.

Since online discussion prompts are available in advance and invite participation and review from every member of the class, students are more likely to spend time reading course materials and preparing their discussion comments in advance. While these motivators are intrinsic to the online discussion format, instructors should still take care to design effective discussion questions if they want to elicit the best responses from students.

To promote critical thinking, avoid questions that require yes/no answers or mere factual recall from class materials. Instead, ask students to provide examples that illustrate concepts or give them a prompt that requires individualized research. For example, provide students with a case study and ask them to research criteria by which they can critique it using course concepts. See this article for more examples of how La Salle faculty are using these and other techniques to energize their asynchronous discussions. These types of question will move students beyond simple knowledge recall and into higher order thinking skills like application and analysis. Bloom’s Taxonomy is a good resource for developing effective discussion questions. Instead of phrasing discussion prompts as questions, try creating imperative statements using some verbs from this chart.

Providing options for students to reply to one or two of a list of several discussion questions is another good strategy for eliciting high quality online discussion interactions. This approach allows students to craft responses that match their individual learning styles and life experiences. As a means of exposing students to a wider variety of prompts, require them to respond to separate postings from other students. Having multiple topics on one discussion board could get confusing, but you can avoid potential problems by communicating clear expectations for online discussions to students.

Give specific guidelines on how threads should be labeled, what length and formality is required, and what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate responses. Address grading concerns for yourself as the instructor and for students by clearly articulating grading policies with criteria that emphasize response quality over quantity, which days of the week responses are due, and the weight of discussions in the overall class grading scheme. Although students may receive instructor feedback through assigned points, remember that the most valuable feedback will be instructor replies to the discussion threads. Frequent instructor participation will acknowledge student participation, build a stronger learning community, and keep conversations clear and on track.

Not ready to abandon class discussions altogether? Consider using the online discussion board as a place where students can build background knowledge on a topic in preparation for an upcoming discussion in a face-to-face setting. This tactic will help students be more focused and prepared as well as provide instructors with a starting point for inviting contributions from more introverted students.

Whether online or in the classroom, an effective discussion question possesses some identifiable characteristics. It should be open-ended and allow for a variety of responses, challenging enough so it is an assessment of student understanding, and be consistent with the learning outcomes for the lesson. As Learning Management System technology progresses, students and instructors are finding online tools more inclusive and engaging means of conversing and building knowledge. Crafting well-designed discussion questions is crucial in leveraging these learning environments to be places where students are no longer passive receivers of information, but can join fully in the teaching and learning process.

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