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.