Writing good discussion prompts

In a classroom setting, an instructor can walk in with a general question, like “What did you think about this week’s reading?” and then weave student responses into a meaningful, complex discussion in real time.

On a discussion board, that same question will fall flat. Students won’t know how to respond. There’s the honest response: I thought it was long. The complementary response: I thought it was very interesting and important. The factual one: This reading was about x, y, and z.

Other discussion questions that don’t work so well on a discussion board include:

  • Who invented the ____________?
  • What does the author mean she says “insert quote from reading here”?
  • What were the three main points of the reading?

The first one has a single correct answer. Once that answer is given, there’s nowhere for the discussion to go. I’ve seen questions like this asked in the past, and I’ve seen a dozen students proceed to give the same response. One of the last to reply even wrote, “I’m not really sure, but I think it’s …” before giving the correct answer, showing that they hadn’t even bothered to look at what others had written before responding. The second and third ones may be open to interpretation, but will reach the saturation point for responses pretty quickly. Again, there will be nowhere for the discussion to go. Additionally, all three questions orient the students toward the instructor rather than their peers. When students respond, they’ll wait for an instructor to affirm their response.

These questions may work in a classroom because a skilled instructor can take any student response and redirect it, fill in missing details, or connect it to another thought. It’s pretty amazing how live facilitation works. In contrast, on a discussion board a student response that falls flat just sits there in an unsatisfactory way until someone else responds to it — if someone else responds to it. Often such contributions are just ignored.

The key to developing fruitful discussion prompts is writing a set of directions that:

  • tells students what they should write in response to the prompt
  • offers the opportunity for each student to have a unique and appropriate response
  • tells students how they should respond to each other, in order to continue the conversation

Here’s an example a discussion prompt that meets these criteria:

TOPIC: Dispelling the Learning Styles Myth
Now that we’ve learned about the learning styles myth, let’s practice dispelling it. First, create a challenge for someone else. Write a brief post from the perspective of someone who believes in the learning styles myth, explaining why you must or cannot learn in a particular style. Then respond to two of your classmates. In your responses, try to break down their beliefs and dispel the myth. Help them understand why such beliefs are neither productive nor empirically supported by using logical arguments and evidence from research. Finally, look at how others have responded. Point out arguments that are particularly effective, and add evidence and arguments in spots where they may be needed.

Note how this prompt has students set up an initial scenario, then respond to each other’s scenarios, and finally evaluate their responses. Throughout the course of this discussion activity, students have to look at both sides of the topic we’ve covered in class (learning styles) and practice developing arguments and using evidence from their readings.

Other options for starting discussions might include asking students to select and interpret a passage from the readings, or to find and share a real-world example of a concept that you’re learning about in the course. From there, the students can find plenty of opportunities to enter the discussion and practice using the key terms, concepts, and skills that you’re learning. There are many variations on this type of discussion activity that you can come up with, all of which push students to dig deep and take ownership of the content.

Alternately, if you have students working on individual projects or papers you might have them use a discussion board to share initial ideas, abstracts, or drafts and then provide each other with peer feedback.

The posts that students produce in response to these prompts may not look anything like a face-to-face class discussion, but that’s okay. As long as the students are working through course material and getting an opportunity to practice applying it, the discussion is serving a useful purpose in the learning process.

Note: There are ways to facilitate asynchronous discussions that more closely resemble natural dialogue, but this really should not be your goal when moving a class online temporarily. Facilitating robust online discussion is a skill that takes time and effort to develop.