Developing Engaging Online Discussions

Last revised: 4/30/2018 by CAH.


Online discussions are used to build dynamic learning communities, to synthesize key concepts and to promote critical thinking skills.  In this article, we discuss tips for writing engaging prompts.

What’s are the Benefits of using Online Discussion Forums?
    1. Build a Learning Community – One of the primary reasons for using discussion forums is to build a community of learners. Discussions allow students to become part of a vibrant learning community, rather than just an independent learner completing and submitting assignments with no real peer interaction.  Discussion forums also help you to get to know your students – perhaps better than in your face-to-face classes.
    2. Demonstrate Knowledge of Key Concepts – Students can delve into the content and share with each other students. With well-designed questions you will easily be able to tell if your students are grasping the material.
    3. Develop Critical Thinking Skills – Through the use of higher order questioning techniques and activities, the discussion board can be used to encourage critical thinking. Discussions are more than superficial conversation – they delve into the material.
    4. Allows Time for In-Depth Reflection – Students have more time to reflect, research and compose their thoughts before participating in the online discussion. Reflective activities require students to share a synthesis of the learning experience, or to describe how a situation or experience has personal value to them. These kinds of activities allow for honest and open responses.
    5. All Voices in the Class are Heard – Writing may be less intimidating than participating in a class-wide discussion.  Participation in discussion forums is usually required by all students, so everyone gets a chance to be heard.  In an online discussion, you are less likely to have one student dominating the discussion. In addition, introverts are more comfortable participating in the online environment because they have time to process the information.
    6. Consensus-Building – Consensus-building activities require students to work together to create a product or to come to an agreement on a topic. These forums can be used to host debates, case studies, etc.
    7. Allows for Guest Expert Participation – Guest experts can speak either synchronously or asynchronously and participate over a short period in an asynchronous discussion with students. See Guest Access to HuskyCT Courses for information on adding guests to your course.


Writing Good Prompts: Use a Three Point Design Strategy

Design Strategy 1: Align Prompts with Objectives

Before you even begin writing your discussion prompts, look at your module or unit level objectives – what knowledge and skills do you want students to develop in your course? Connect your questions to your objectives. We highly recommend using Bloom’s taxonomy to write your learning objectives. The objectives should be student-centered and measurable. Depending on the learning objective, using Bloom’s Taxonomy will provide a starting place for you to design an appropriate level of question. Higher order objectives lead to more critical thinking and less recitation (Foote, 2001; Lord & Baviskar, 2007). Knowledge and comprehension focused questions (i.e., “Identify” or “define” type questions) do not generally lead to quality discussions, unless they are tied to higher order thinking.  The lower level questions tend to have one right answer and do not encourage a variety of responses.

Design Strategy 2: Write Open-Ended Questions

All too often, discussion prompts have only one answer and do not generate discussion – everyone has the same answer. In addition to aligning your prompts with your objectives, think about questions that will elicit different responses from each student.

Types of Open-Ended Questions

  • Introductions – Introductions serve a dual purpose – as a way of building a learning community by getting to know each other and to practice using the discussion tool in a non-threatening way (no prior knowledge needed; not graded).
  • Ice Breakers – Ice Breakers are designed to get students thinking about the material or concepts and build connections with peers.  If these exercises are not assessing an objective, they are not graded.
  • Clarifying Explanations – These questions usually start at the lower level of thinking skills but build to a higher level. Students are generally asked to clarify a concept and then demonstrate their knowledge and comprehension of concepts by referencing instructional materials.
  • Question Assumptions – Instead of asking students if they agree with a particular statement, try asking the following questions instead:  What other explanations might account for this? What are the assumptions behind this statement?
  • Explore Additional Evidence – This type of prompt asks students to identify additional evidence supporting or refuting a concept or idea. It may also ask students to explore a concept more deeply by ranking or justifying their thought process.
  • Multiple Perspectives – These prompts allow students to express different ideas, theories or opinions.
  • Real World Implications – This type of prompt asks students to demonstrate knowledge of a concept by applying it to a real work example.
  • Self-Reflective Processes – Reflective activities require students to share a synthesis of the learning experience, or to describe how a situation or experience has personal value to them.

Review the Discussion Question Examples document for more ideas on purposes and types of questions one can ask.

Design Strategy 3: Check Your Questions

Use the Guiding Questions and Rubric for Creating Online Discussion Questions to review your discussion prompts. This tool can be used to determine whether or not your prompts will promote active discussion.

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