Close your eyes, and picture the most engaging discussion you’ve ever had in a classroom. What characterized that discussion? Was it the participants’ passion and enthusiasm for a particular topic? Was it their energized, but respectful, debate around differing perspectives on a challenging subject? Did they have an open, honest conversation that tied their personal experiences to the broader political, economic, or social issues at hand? Quite possibly, you pictured a combination of all these elements, taking place in one dynamic conversation.

Now, consider: how might you transfer those same elements into an online setting?

If your course includes an online discussion component, you may asking yourself that very question. What kinds of questions and prompts will help you spark the kind of engagement you’re envisioning for your course?

Below, we’ve rounded up some of our best tips for creating online discussion prompts. Review the ideas, and add your own suggestions in the comments!

Suggestions for Creating Online Discussion Prompts that Engage Your Students

1. Craft questions that drive students to go beyond “just the facts.”

It’s important to check students’ knowledge of the core concepts you’re covering in your class. However, those types of questions don’t go far in fostering an engaging online discussion. Instead, you’ll want to create discussion questions that require analysis and further investigation into the topics you’re covering through your readings and lectures.

As Bonnie Tensen suggests in the presentation “Reenergizing Online Discussions,” you could also ask students to post their own critical-thinking questions about the assigned reading or viewings. Do stipulate that these questions should require an answer that stretches beyond a simple “yes” or “no”; the questions should be open ended, require short answers, and call for analysis, comparison, or interpretation of the ideas presented.

2. Consider how to use your questions as a means of creating community in the class.

Often, students don’t feel connected to their classmates in their online courses because they don’t truly have a chance to get to know them. Ideally, the discussion board is a place for them to make those connections! By asking questions that encourage personal responses to the material, as well as a degree of self-disclosure, you can help students develop more of a sense of community… and increased engagement in the class.

Our previous post “Creating Community in Online Courses: Faculty Tips” offers a number of suggestions from instructors who have been able to foster this sense of community in their online courses. Here’s a sampling of their tips:

Frame questions that generate multiple views. Ask students to respond to other student’s posts. Model the behavior by sharing information about yourself or your research. It helps to break down barriers.
—Krista R. Feinberg, Lakeland College (Sheboygan, WI)

I teach psychology and find it helps to use assignments early on that require discussion around personal (but not confidential) experiences and relate them to the text or other material.
—James Rollin, Saginaw Valley State University (University Center, MI)

3. Design activities that encourage students to explore course topics at a deeper level.

In their chapter on “Technology and Teaching,” included in McKeachie’s Teaching TipsErping Zhu and Matthew Kaplan suggest “…using role plays, simulations, and pros and cons” as a means of increasing engagement and dialogue on your online discussion board (Zhu and Kaplan, 247).

You might create a scenario based on an important course concept, and ask each student to discuss that scenario from the perspective of one of the individuals involved in or affected by it. Or, you could link to a journal article, blog post, chapter excerpt, or case study, and ask students to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the ideas that the authors proposed, requiring them to support their positions with material gleaned from other readings or your lectures.

4. Relate the questions to students’ real-life experiences and challenges.

As noted in a previous post about engaging discussions: questions that connect class topics to students’ real-life challenges and choices can create meaningful and engaging dialogue in the classroom. Throughout the term, include some discussion questions that prompt students to relate course topics to their own experiences. You could also challenge them to apply theories and concepts to scenarios that they have faced, or will face, on the job.


What are your tips for crafting online discussion questions that engage students and encourage them to develop their critical thinking skills? Share your suggestions in the comments.


Reference: Zhu, Erping and Matthew Kaplan. 2014 “Technology and Teaching.” In “Good Designs for Written Feedback for Students.” In Marilla Svinicki and Wilbert J. McKeachie’s McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers, 14th ed., 235-257. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.