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Running an online discussion board is a very different challenge from having a classroom discussion. In-person instructors can ask discussion questions on the fly, rephrase themselves for clarity, and direct the flow of a conversation with follow-ups. Online, you only have one shot to ask a discussion question that catches students’ interest and compels them to speak up.
The stakes are higher than you think. Sad, empty discussion boards, just like a reliance on dry online lectures, lead to disengaged students and lackluster online experiences.
On the flip side, active discussion boards can elevate an online class from okay to extraordinary. Studies show that participating in classroom discussions reinforces knowledge retention through active learning and strengthens students’ critical-thinking skills.
If you can get a real discussion going between students, then you can reap the benefits of community and collaborative learning, even if your class never meets face-to-face.
To do this, you will have to look beyond the dry writing prompts and uninspired reading-comprehension questions that so often sink a conversation before it begins. You’ll have to craft questions that inspire students to actually engage and interact with each other in a lively discussion.
Promote Divergent Thinking
Divergent thinking, the ability to consider many possible solutions instead of just one, is the key to a lively discussion board. While it’s important to assess students’ comprehension of the course materials, creating questions with a single right answer shuts down discussion before it starts.
Consider Bloom’s Taxonomy of knowledge, which illustrates different levels of learning and understanding. The bottom of the pyramid represents the most basic levels of learning, where thinkers converge on one correct answer. The top of the pyramid, the higher level of learning, is where learners’ diverge to create their own unique answers.
Avoid questions that utilize only the bottom three layers of the pyramid: remember (fact recall), understand (explain concepts), and apply (use information to solve or interpret). These techniques are great for tests or essay assignments, but they won’t create debate, conversation, or original thought.
Great discussion questions do more than just test comprehension: They turn students from passive receptors of knowledge into active participants in their education.
To push students into exercising higher-level thinking, write discussion questions that pull from the top of the pyramid:
- Analyze: Ask students to examine, classify, or question course materials to draw their own conclusions.
- Evaluate: Ask students to form an opinion and defend it; critique or appraise course materials.
- Create: Ask students to use what they’ve learned to construct something new.
Avoid closed-ended questions, such as those that ask students to list characteristics, define terms, explain concepts, or recall facts. Once the correct answer has been given, there isn’t much more to say, so the discussion fizzles out.
Instead, create open-ended questions that don’t have a right or wrong answer. That way, each student can give their own unique perspective as they respond to and build on their classmates’ answers.
Have Learners Share What They Already Know
Discussion questions don't just have to focus on the creation or analysis of new information. Discussion questions that ask learners to share what they already know about a new idea, problem, or related concept, can be an equally impactful way to get the conversation flowing.
Discussion questions focused on uncovering what learners already know have several solid advantages:
- Position learners as active participants in knowledge creation and sharing, rather than passive receptacles waiting to be taught new information
- Reduce barriers to participation in the discussion; you don't have to come up with an innovative idea to have something worth sharing
- Give instructors an insight into existing knowledge, so we can tailor upcoming exercises accordingly
These kind of discussion questions work best when framed similar to a think-pair-share exercise, according to the Designing for Learning blog. Ask learners to share "what they think and where, when, or how they might have heard about a concept, person, idea or related event".
For example, questions that ask learners to share prior knowledge might be framed as:
- "What do you already know about this topic? What do you want to know?"
- "Agree or disagree with the following statement, and explain why your prior knowledge justifies your opinion"
These kind of questions work best at the beginning of a new module or topic.
Tap into students’ higher reasoning skills by posing questions that require them to critically think about course materials to draw their own conclusions. Instead of just regurgitating information, students will have to first apply what they’ve learned to the problem and then make connections by questioning, comparing, and organizing their ideas.
To create analytical discussion questions, root your query in the required readings and lectures. Be careful not to slide into questions with a single right or wrong answer; instead, give students room to interpret and evaluate facts as they craft an argument. This will also create space for discussion as students compare their conclusions.
Here are some examples of discussion questions that encourage analytical thinking:
Ask students to critique an author’s argument:
Are the theories that Darwin presented in 'On the Origin of Species' anti-religion?
Ask students to compare two theories:
Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed that human beings are inherently good. Thomas Hobbes disagreed, calling the human condition “nasty, brutish, and short.” Do you believe that humans are inherently good? Why or why not?
Use causal reasoning:
Based on the materials we’ve studied this semester, what do you believe is responsible for global warming?
Ask questions that promote metacognition:
How has your thinking about early childhood psychology changed since you began this course?
Help All Learners Engage
Low engagement is not the only reason for empty discussion boards in online courses. In some cases, learners are eager to participate but don't feel comfortable doing so.
It's not hard to see why. The internet isn't always the kindest place, and sharing new ideas or opinions can make people vulnerable to a Twitter-style pile-on. As instructors we need to find ways to help the less confident share their thoughts.
The way we phrase our discussion questions and prompts can help achieve that aim:
Set Ground Rules Up Front
At the start of your discussion exercise, or at the top of the discussion board, make the rules of engagement clear. You may want to ask participants to avoid 'personalizing' an issue, or state what kind of language is unacceptable.
Use Unbiased Language in Your Questions
Gender neutral language ('salesperson' rather than 'salesman') and inclusive pronouns ('they/them') might help some people feel more welcome in the discussion. Remove any gender-specific or race-specific phrases in your discussion questions to make sure no one feels like they're not qualified to join the discussion.
Leverage Smaller Discussion Groups
Regardless of how confident your learners are, sometimes discussion boards just get too unruly to engage with. To avoid a situation in which the discussion becomes confused, try breaking your learners into smaller discussion groups and asking them to answer questions that way. Eduflow's discussion activity, for example, allows you to separate learners into smaller groups to create a safer learning environment.
Ask for Opinions
If the internet has taught us anything, it’s that everyone has opinions, and people love sharing them. Tap into this almost primal instinct by getting students talking not just about what they know but also about what they believe.
Asking for opinions forces students to employ higher-level evaluation skills to justify their arguments. These questions require students to evaluate materials, create arguments, and defend those stances with facts and theories.
To create questions that require students to take a stance:
Ask them to compare two things:
Who was the more influential Victorian poet, Tennyson or Hardy?
Have them find a better way to do something:
Traditionally, election polling has been conducted solely over the phone. How could this process be updated for the modern era while still maintaining poll integrity?
Encourage them to argue why something is great (or terrible):
Is there value in funding drug-prevention programs in public elementary schools? Why or why not?
Ask Relational Questions
Get students invested in course materials by tying them to their everyday lives. Likewise, you can encourage discussion participation by writing questions that tie to current events or issues that are important to students.
These questions draw students in because they allow them to apply their own perspectives and personal histories to the course materials. The answers can bring out strongly held opinions, which are usually the basis of healthy debates. A productive discussion can encourage students to question their assumptions and learn about alternate perspectives.
To help students relate to the discussion questions:
Ask for examples from students’ lives:
Give an example of a time that you witnessed racial inequality. How did it shape or alter your worldview?
Discuss timely issues:
Last year, over 5,000 species were moved to the list of endangered animals. What role should biologists play in conservation?
Brainstorm solutions to societal problems:
What could be changed to improve clean-water regulations in the United States?
Give students something to argue about. Questions designed to create dissent encourages to construct arguments and formulate opinions, and students will have to actively synthesize the material to form and support an opinion.
While controversy is the quickest way to spark a long and passionate online discussion, be careful when introducing sensitive subjects. Learning forums should be a safe space for all students to express ideas without feeling threatened or subjugated due to their race, gender, orientation, or religious beliefs. Controversial questions will require heavier instructor moderation to ensure that the conversations stay civil.
To introduce an element of controversy into your discussions:
Create questions that challenge common orthodoxies:
Traditionally, law enforcement has served as the community’s first line of defense against criminal behavior, but many are beginning to question this model. What would an alternate approach to community policing look like, and how effective do you think it would be?
Relate questions to current events:
Should hospitals keep formula on site, or should they promote breastfeeding above all other options?
Reference major debates in your academic field:
Will humanity ever discover extraterrestrial life? What form might it take?
Ask Fewer Questions, but Better Ones
It can be hard to know which questions will resonate with students and which will fall flat, but avoid the temptation to pepper the discussion board with questions to see what will stick. This will overwhelm students and result in less participation, not more.
Instead, ask fewer questions, but spend your time crafting truly great ones that appeal to students’ higher reasoning skills and spur meaningful discussion.
Great discussion questions:
- Are clear and easy to understand. Avoid acronyms and scholarly language. Most students will not spend five minutes just trying to decipher what you’re asking.
- Foster a dialogue. Beyond just having no single right answer, a good discussion question leaves room for people to not just answer the question differently but build on those answers to create a back-and-forth discussion as well.
- Are inclusive. Everyone in the class should be equally prepared to answer the question, no matter what their background. Avoid questions that include details that are specific to only one culture, economic class, or gender. For example, if you’re teaching a class to a group of international students, don’t write questions based on the concept of American Thanksgiving.
- Align with the course objectives. Just because something is interesting or would spark a lively debate doesn’t necessarily mean it’s relevant to the course. Your ultimate goal is to encourage students to use and apply the course materials, so your questions should align with that aim.
Writing Great Discussion Questions Is Only Half the Battle
For most students, participating in class discussions is a calculated risk. They’re putting their carefully constructed arguments and deeply held opinions on the line, with a real possibility of criticism from their peers. You can encourage more participation and discussion by mitigating that risk and creating a welcoming space for students to share. After you’ve posed your killer question, continue to moderate and guide the discussion to keep it flowing civilly.
This can be daunting in a very large online class, but an LMS with good moderation features, like the ability to section students into smaller discussion groups, can help.
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