November 4th, 2014

Online Discussion Questions That Work


Most online faculty know that discussion is one of the biggest advantages of online education. The increased think-time afforded by the asynchronous environment, coupled with the absence of public speaking fears, produces far deeper discussion than is usually found in face-to-face courses.

But many faculty undermine this natural advantage by crafting poor discussion questions. The number one mistake is to confuse a discussion question with an essay topic. What are the three criteria used to judge whether patients are competent to make a medical decision for themselves? is not a discussion question. It’s an essay question and should be left to an essay assignment. I’ve also seen instructors turn discussion into research assignments by requiring students to cite a certain number of outside sources in order to get full credit.

I’ve come to believe that crafting good online discussion questions is just plain hard and instructors fall back on essay questions for lack of better ideas. Below are some question types that will help generate real discussion.

Case study
Case studies are an ideal way to illuminate the practical consequences of different concepts. For example, in a medical ethics course I used the following:

A 72-year-old man is admitted to the hospital for a kidney transplant. His daughter is brought in as the best available match as a donor. As the man’s doctor, you discover from the pre-op lab work that the daughter is not a suitable donor because she is not his biological daughter. What, if anything, do you tell the man, his wife, or the daughter?

This example provides an ideal way to explore how fundamental principles of privacy, physician honesty, and shielding a patient from harm collide in the real world. The question allows for a variety of answers, each of which takes the students deeper into the fundamental issues being taught in the course.

Another good discussion device is to generate controversy with a statement that challenges common orthodoxy. Consider this question in an information security class:

A fundamental tenet of information security is that you must force the user to periodically change his or her password. But this practice actually undermines security. With constantly changing passwords, users are forced to write them down in an easy-to-find location or use an easy-to-guess algorithm (my street address followed by a ‘1,’ then changed to a ‘2,’ then changed to a ‘3,’ etc.). We are better off letting users keep the same password indefinitely. Do you agree?

Also important is that a controversial statement needs to draw a fine line that allows for reasonable positions on both sides of the issue. It’s not helpful to say something patently outrageous, such as “Passwords should not be required at all.” A good statement that challenges what is being presented in the readings demonstrates that the instructor considers the students co-investigators and allows them to draw upon their wider knowledge base to engage the issues.

It’s been argued that the highest form of understanding is demonstrated through transfer of principles to new situations. For example, I’ve taught the classic “Prisoners’ Dilemma” ( as part of my ethics and political theory courses. If you are not familiar with it, the upshot is that there are situations in which the rational choice for each individual involved leads to a situation that is not optimal for anyone. Think of it as the “invisible hand” in reverse.

The concept was developed as a way to understand political structures, but once you understand the concept—really understand it—you find that a lot of ordinary situations are prisoners’ dilemmas. I’m a bike racer, and I realized that bike races are examples of the prisoners’ dilemma. So one type of discussion question is to demonstrate the application of a concept to an entirely different situation and ask students to generate their own examples. Students can then evaluate how well the others’ examples illustrate the concept.

The summary
A good way to end discussion threads is to post a summary of the main points as well as your thoughts on them. Revisiting material is good for retention, and these summaries demonstrate that you are keeping abreast of the discussion. Alternatively, you can assign different students to post summaries of each discussion.

I like to do video summaries. Something about hearing a voice and seeing a face captures our attention. It requires only a cheap webcam and a few minutes of my time. Don’t toil over getting it perfect—just speak your mind for a few minutes, and post it as a video.

Excerpted from Online Learning 2.0: Discussion Questions That Work, Online Classroom, 13.8 (2013): 4,7. © Magna Publications. All Rights Reserved.

  • elenkus

    The quiz approach to discussion can help build a sense of community. Asking fairly direct questions that students are asked to answer in discussion groups is a way to have student work together to build a common knowledge base. I therefore think the first point has too narrow a view of the objective of discussions.

  • Dr. Linda Beechinor

    I agree these are excellent examples of discussion topics. My concern is that I am finidng very little in the literature to link discussion forums and learning outcomes, either as a practice or an evaluation tool. Have there been studies done that support our assumption that this is a valuable tool. Then I would like to know if it is valuable at all levels of higher education, such as in doctural level courses.

  • Eddie Rousse

    Regarding video summaries, I imagine that is how Ted Talks got started. People practicing telling stories that they feel people would value listening to. Once they've mastered speaking while being videoed they present their theme or story on Ted Talks.

  • Mike

    I appreciate the distinction between a good discussion and an essay question. The most recent trend I'm seeing is the alignment of online discussion to the "Depth of Knowledge" or DOK levels from Norman Webb and other colleagues, particularly at the high school level. I see the reasoning behind this but at the same time the very nature and role of "discussion" has changed, and not necessarily for the better. What we need, in my opinion, are deliberations within online threads and forums. Require students to learn multiple perspectives to support or oppose a topic/question and only after discussing each should you drop your role and deliberate. Your examples above are fantastic.

  • Dr.Adesina Uthman

    Indeed an educative article, very realistic ideas. Our student are using asynchronous communication. I think it's really assisting some learners to become an independent learner especially when rich ideas are been posted by their peers, they feel challenged and contribute to online forum too. Some learn more when they observed that they are not the poorest when structures and tenses are corrected by facilitator. Some learn critical thinking when questions on real life situations are posted. It assist them in practical application of ttheir heoretical knowledged.

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  • rurujude

    I've just been teaching a course that I didn't write which had 'essay questions ' for the forums and an expectation that students would use source material and reference it. I felt instinctively that this wasn't a good way to generate discussion and sure enough the threads were stilted and repetitive so its great to see alternatives here. I think the suggestions of using case studies and statements that generate controversy will work well for me.