How to Write Discussion Questions

Online courses should be more than just an attractive way to convey information, because learning is more than just relaying facts. It’s about relationships that build frameworks for information. Asking useful discussion questions will help your students in three key ways:

  1. To build community
  2. To learn through explaining things themselves
  3. To synthesize what they’ve learned with their experience

Below you’ll find four tips to help you write questions that accomplish these goals:

1. Ask Open-Ended Questions

Strong open-ended questions guide our thoughts without expecting specific answers. Asking an open-ended question is like fencing in a pasture—a farmer wants his cattle to have plenty of grass on which to feed, but he doesn’t want any of them going too far off on their own. The right discussion question will push students in a helpful direction without giving them too much room to follow unhelpful tangents. Let’s imagine what open-ended questions about this blog post would sound like:

Weaker open-ended question:

What’s one thing that you found really helpful from our discussion about open-ended questions? (Too broad.)

Better open-ended question:

How do you think your specific subject material will shape how you write open-ended questions? (Helps students apply information to their own context)

Weaker open-ended question:

What are some important things to remember when you’re writing open-ended questions? (Expects regurgitation of what’s been discussed, doesn’t push students for original thoughts)

Better open-ended question:

How can open-ended questions in early lessons prepare your students for what you want to teach them later in the course? (Pushes students to consider specific benefits we didn’t discuss)

2. Think about Community

Even if you write the perfect open-ended question (broad enough to be challenging without being so broad it’s unhelpful), expect to see a wide array of answers. Students will combine what you’ve taught them with their own experience to bring something original into the conversation. That’s discussion’s superpower—each student becomes a teacher, and each benefits from the experience of others.

The community aspect of discussion groups will also provide more (and better) feedback. Feedback from peers not only helps a student benefit from someone else’s ideas, but it applies positive pressure to the learning process. No one wants to come to a discussion empty-handed, knowing that their fellow classmates will be watching, so they’ll put more time into answering a question well.

As you write discussion questions, consider asking yourself: “Does this question help students to add their own experience to this discussion?” Try following that up with: “Does this question motivate students to give a thoughtful response?”

3. More Questions = More Participation

Offering more than one question to answer — providing some that are very accessible, others that are more challenging — will draw in more students to participate. Many of your students won’t be used to online discussion. And others will squirm at the thought of having to share in front of their classmates. For these students, easily accessible questions will become a training ground for healthy discussion. These easier questions will familiarize students with what it’s like to discuss and get feedback. Again, let’s imagine an accessible question we might ask if we were teaching this blog post:

Easily accessible:

How have discussion questions helped you learn in the past? (Simply focuses on the student’s personal experience while drawing out information about the subject.)

4. Offer Incentive (Grade the Discussion)

It’d be difficult to grade every discussion post (much less the feedback on those posts). And, if you’re asking the right kind of discussion questions, there shouldn’t be a “right answer” to grade. But offering points for participation will usually draw in the stragglers.

Participation points may seem a little too pragmatic at first. After all, we want students to want to discuss, right? But no one learns to swim without getting in the water, and some of us need a little push off the edge of the swimming pool. Giving out points will get them involved, and once the student is in the discussion, they just might find that it’s really helpful.

(Read more on grades at their worst (and best) and how points create dynamic courses.)

Helpful discussion questions take time to write. The process isn’t easy, though it gets easier with practice. But when you’ve mastered it, your online course will feel more like a class and not just a textbook. Students will begin to engage with what you teach and with their classmates. You’ll build a community of learners prepared to apply what they know.

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