April 6th, 2015

You’re Asking the Wrong Question


You’re asking the wrong question. No, seriously, you’re probably asking the wrong question.

Yeah, that’s a pretty bold statement. But I’ve read tens of thousands of questions meant to prompt discussions in online course rooms, and the odds are I am right.

It’s true that much has been written about how to compose effective online discussion prompts. I’ve read a lot of that literature, and contributed a bit to it myself. But what I see often missing is consideration for the purpose of the discussion that is supposed to be prompted by the question.

This consideration for purpose is often overlooked because of assumptions we make. We, as course designers, faculty facilitators, or both, assume that we know the purpose of the discussion for which we are composing the questions. Yet, we have many different purposes of discussions. Some faculty believe that the purpose of the discussion is for students to demonstrate comprehension or application of the course concepts. Some folks think the purpose of the discussion is formative assessment, with a focus on instructor-student interaction. Still others believe that the purpose of the discussion is to get students talking to one another. And we are all right.

For a long time, most of the online discussion questions I saw were written for the purpose—intended or not—of eliciting the student’s level of understanding or comprehension of course concepts.

  • What figurative language is illustrated in Alice in Wonderland?
  • How do our bodies maintain homeostasis?
  • How is behavioral interviewing used to screen job candidates?

These kinds of comprehension-checking questions have their place and serve an important purpose; if that is their intended purpose. The problem is that discussion purpose has often not been considered explicitly.

Among those of us who geek out over discussion questions (and we know who we are), it is fairly well established that questions meant to prompt interaction among peers should ask questions that result in divergent responses—those that arise from course concepts but are applied at a more personal level—versus convergent responses, which focus on a single, correct answer or narrow set of acceptable responses. Thus, the trend developed among course designers to emphasize prompts that allow for individualization in student response. The “scenario” prompt is an example that has been touted recently as a discussion prompt panacea.

But the scenario approach does not necessarily take us to our happy place in terms of prompting divergent responses. Providing a scenario to students and asking them to apply a particular concept to that scenario can result in as many responses that sound the same as a straight-forward, comprehension-checking kind of question.

Consider the difference:

  • Summarize the four levels of Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory.
  • Consider the situation of Takiyah. [A situation is then described.] Describe Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory as it applies to Takiyah’s situation.

There really isn’t that much of a difference in how the responses are going to sound. Most students are going to accurately align the levels of the theory to the circumstances of the scenario; in addition, most students will probably quote the same sentences from the source text. And that’s okay for certain purposes, but not necessarily for getting peers to engage in robust discussion. After all, when the responses are mostly the same, what is there to talk about?

There are many valid purposes for course room discussions, though we often focus on the holy grail of digital discourse: robust, peer-to-peer discussion. I admit I’ve certainly fallen for the allure of an exciting exchange of intellectual eloquence.

Still, the purpose of a discussion forum can just as easily be intended for instructor-student discussion. So, a simple comprehension-check might be a perfectly acceptable type of question. The instructor can respond to each student’s work with additional guidance or questions to clarify or extend.

So, are you asking the wrong question? Probably. Maybe. You might be asking the wrong discussion question if you haven’t first asked the more important question: What purpose do I want this discussion to serve?

Barbara M. Hall is an assistant professor and chair of the instructional design program at Ashford University.

  • Perry Shaw

    A key to all quality education is to ask "Why am I teaching this?" and "What exactly am I trying to accomplish?" Hence the value of Dr Hall's observations in this blog.
    I would also want to add the need for clarity in our questions: vague questions lead to vague and general responses. If you are getting unsatisfactory responses to your questions, chances are that the students are unsure what is being asked.
    In the examples given in the blog the first set of questions are extremely vague compared with the second set: the latter provide far clearer parameters for response.
    Part of the skill of quality question design is to give clarity while preserving a level of divergence that nurtures analytic, synthetic, evaluative, and creative thinking.

    • Barbara M. Hall

      Hi, Perry,

      I appreciate your recognition that there is a skill set to question design. As you alluded to, questions designed to prompt discussion between peers need to encourage divergent responses. We faculty often think we craft questions that prompt hi9gh levels of cognitive activity; reflecting on the purposes of our discussions, analyzing the questions we are asking, and inviting feedback from others can make our questions even stronger.

      With thanks for commenting,

  • Vilis Nams

    You have written a nice article explaining why traditional discussion questions don't work. It would be useful to give some examples of discussion questions that do work – and especially counter examples for the examples you gave for bad questions.

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  • ruthskillen

    One way to ensure divergent response is to ask participants to draw on their own experiences and understandings. Additionally, controversial questions without a set right/wrong answer would also invite conversation (esp. if the intention is peer-peer exchange). Questions that elicit divergent response can act as a catalyst for reaching towards higher order thinking skills.

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  • Ted G.

    I agree with your thesis and with Vilis' post. The article is well written and explains what doesn't work and why. But you only took us half way home.

    Provide guidelines/examples of what does work and why.

  • Scott Beadenkopf

    Thanks for your brief and well written piece! As an online learning trainer, I encourage faculty to use the discussion board for real discussion – to pose questions that have no one correct answer. I suggest that they use other tools – blogs, assignments, journals and quizzes – for questions that are not really for discussion. I worry that students will come to think of the discussion board as a place just for rote answers. But I also realize that many instructors do not have the interest in learning another tool and will use the discussion forums for many purposes. So I am delighted with your distinctions.

  • Rachelle

    @Vilis Nams: You could tweak the example given by asking students to come up with a scenario that reflects Bronfenbrenner's theory, or asking them to choose the best theory to relate to Takiyah's story and defend the choice. Alternatively, you could ask students to make and defend an impossible choice, such as "What's the most/least important/valuable/relevant tenet of this theory and why?"

    This would get you more divergent responses, at least, but I'm not sure it would produce more peer-to-peer exchange. Can anyone here suggest something based on the examples in this article?

    • Susan

      Good one.

  • Susan

    How about: Which of the four levels of Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory would you most like to change in your own life? Why? In what way?

    You'd probably have to build up to that level of trust, though, before students would respond. They'd have to feel safe with you and each other.

  • Rich

    Interesting topic Barbara! There is clearly not a simplistic answer to this on going dilemma that course designers and teachers go through on a daily basis. Teachers have wrestled with this issue for years; however, since the discussion forum is actually the replacement for class time in a traditional setting, I believe the discussion questions should be directly related to the week's intended goals and objectives. For example, if the week's expected learning outcomes are:

    Illustrate the basics of picturebook design.
    Implement plot into a classroom literacy program.
    Implement story elements into a literacy lesson plan.
    Reflect on positive attributes of stories read.

    We might ask:

    How do I recognize and/or design an effective picture book?
    · How do I integrate story plot into my literacy lesson plan?
    · What are the key story elements and how must I include them in my lesson planning?
    · What are the positive attributes of quality children’s literature?

    This process provides purpose to the learning objectives; it gives students a purpose for reading from the text and any research they may complete during the week. The students are in search of "answers" so to speak..

    Thank you for providing us with "food for thought".