Discussion questions are synonymous with online learning. But how do you go about choosing your questions? Where do you start? Are your choices applicable to your content? What can you do with the format other than discuss?  Let’s take a look.

Where do you start?
The easiest place to draw topics is from the weekly learning objectives. If the topic is important enough to state as an objective, it’s probably worth discussing.

Drawing questions from assigned readings is a great way to make sure that students are completing their homework. It is also a useful way to transfer a classroom discussion to an online course.
When structuring such topics, see if you can hone in on something without a clear answer. Students can voice their opinions, which are backed up with citations from the text. This quickly takes them up Blooms Taxonomy as they are applying knowledge they just learned and combining it with existing knowledge. They are synthesizing in no time.

Current Events
If you have a topical class, you’re in luck. Discussion questions excel at addressing current issues in the field. You can structure this in several ways:
First, the instructor can post a current issue and invite student responses. You can take this in the direction of opinion or problem solving. How would the student tackle the problem? Can the student apply his or her readings to the problem to begin to formulate a solution?
Second, have students post their own discussion topics. Not only does this make them more invested in the experience, but it reveals their interests. Additionally, for students not used to tracking current trends in the field, you begin to accustom them to this vital practice. We’re now accomplishing three tasks with one activity.

What if you have a hands-on course with a definitive outcome; such as a hard science or a programming course? Student projects should deliver a predictable result. You don’t need to discuss it.  It’s either right or wrong. However, getting to the result is an opening for discussion.
If you are running small group projects, give each group a discussion thread to collaborate on and work on together. They keep all communication centralized and the instructor can advise as necessary.

Discussions are old fashioned. I want to blog.
Sure. Go for it. But blogs are really just discussions with a different organizational scheme. The instructor posts a blog entry (topic) and then students comment (discuss). But the linear organization of the blog may make more sense than a threaded discussion. Either way, we’re still having a discussion.
What about a wiki? Same model, different tool. With a wiki, you are collaborating on an article, weighing edits, and discussing the overall goal. Still a discussion, just in a different format.

Writing good discussion questions: CREST+
We’ve looked at the different ways you can use discussion questions, now let’s look at a method for writing them. You don’t have to use this for every question, but it’s a good model to check against.
The CREST+ model  stands for  “cognitive nature of the question [C], the reading basis [R], any experiential [E] possibility, style and type of question [ST] , and finally ways to structure a good question [+]”. Breaking it down:

You need to look at the way you are going to approach the topic and your audience. Are you looking at learning styles, Bloom’s Taxonomoy, constructivism, etc. as a basis of your approach?

What textbook readings are you basing the question on? Tying the question back to the readings helps your students to link the new knowledge with their pre-existing knowledge. From a logistics perspective, it also makes it very easy for them to cite references to back up their posts since they are pulling from the same source that the question came from.

If you can, have the students tie in their experiential knowledge of the subject. This makes it personal and immediately applicable to their lives.

S & T
In looking at the style of question, we’re examining the means of student to student collaboration. Can they work on the discussion questions in groups, as a pair, or with peer review?
There are a myriad of question types, and you should select the one that best suits your material. You could look at scenarios, follow-up questions to the readings, topical discussion of current trends in the field, etc.

In addition to great questions, don’t forget the surrounding structure. Set clear due dates, evaluation rubrics, and instructions to ensure that you and your students are on the same page.