Writing Discussion Forum Prompts

Discussion forums are a hallmark of asynchronous online courses like those at UNE. Previous posts on this site have offered an excellent introduction to Best Practices for Discussion Board Facilitation, and an overview of current conversations around learning outcomes and instructional implications of online discussion forums. In this post, I aim to provide a closer look by offering practical tips for writing discussion forum prompts and instructor posts in relation to intended learning outcomes. In a future blog post, I will propose a two-level discussion model as a way to meet the competing goals of discussions as a space for creative exploration of ideas, versus discussions as a venue for more formal academic discourse.

Before going on, I want to briefly address the importance of discussions in an online course. In addition to providing a way for students to engage with the content, discussions offer an opportunity for student-to-student engagement, thus adding a social element that is widely considered to be essential to the success of an online learning experience. They fit well into the Community of Inquiry framework for effective online education experiences by providing the potential for all three essential contributing elements: social presence, cognitive presence and teaching presence.

A common concern regarding online discussions is that students nominally fulfill class discussion requirements by posting, but fail to engage more deeply with their classmates by reading and responding to their messages in a thoughtful and reflective manner. Student responses are often instructor oriented and don’t necessarily fulfill the goal of students learning from one another, or of deepening students’ cognitive engagement. As highlighted in Olga’s Vision post linked above, poorly facilitated discussions can amount to an aggregation of isolated statements that don’t further individual or collective knowledge created around the topic (Dennen and Wieland, 2007). In order to achieve the goal of deeper shared learning, high levels of interconnectedness between learners leading to higher levels of knowledge construction must be explicitly built into the discussion assignment and nurtured by the instructor. Rather than merely peering in on discussions or answering students’ questions directly, which can have a stifling effect on discussion, instructors can engage their “teaching presence” to help focus and deepen the dialogue and to encourage student-to-student and student-to-content engagement (read more). Here are a few helpful strategies to consider (many apply to both the initial discussion prompts as well as follow-up discussion thread posts):

  • Sequence discussion prompts from simple, specific, comprehension-oriented questions to more complex and open-ended questions
  • Initiate the discussion thread with a post that refers to a specific aspect of the discussion topic in a simple, easily accessible way, eg. “What would you do if you were in x situation?”
  • Establish your presence early, but then back off to allow students to take ownership, giving time for students to reflect and respond before adding comments
  • If needed, redirect the discussion by posing questions related to the original topic, eg. “How does x (quote from student) relate to y (course concept)?”
  • Invite student-to-student learning with questions emphasizing connections and relationships between students’ ideas and course concepts, eg. “How does x (concept from course materials or student) change your thinking about y (course topic)?”
  • Advance the discussion with questions that require higher order thinking, eg. “Compare your plan with the plan proposed by x (author or student)” “Evaluate the potential of y (course concept) in y situation.”
    “Recommend a strategy to address the problem identified by z (author or student)”
  • Deepen the discussion with specific questions that invite critical thinking and problem solving, eg. “What are some of the perspectives, issues and implications involved with x problem?”  
  • Ground the discussion with questions around transfer of learning, eg. “How would you apply x (course concept) if you were in y’s (figure or student) situation?”
  • Address misconceptions through an Announcement if they pertain to a large number of students (use email or a private channel to address individual issues )

Try to  develop a good sense of the degree and level of student learning through the quality of student responses. Pay attention to how the connections students make between course materials, between course materials and ideas their classmates bring to the discussion, and to ideas they bring themselves. Other indicators of the effectiveness of the forum are the degree to which arguments are explained and supported, and the degree to which concepts are applied to different situations. Although all of these criteria are not explicitly evaluated in every discussion board grading rubric, they are nevertheless important objectives of a successful online learning experience in a higher education environment.


Andresen, M. A. (2009). Asynchronous discussion forums: success factors, outcomes, assessments, and limitations. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 12(1), 249-257.

Bidjerono, T., and Shea, P. (2009). Community of inquiry as a theoretical framework to foster ‘‘epistemic engagement” and ‘‘cognitive presence” in online education. Computers & Education, 52(3), 543-553.

Dennen, V., and Wieland, K. (2007). From interaction to intersubjectivity: Facilitating online group discourse processes. Distance Education, 28(3), 281-297.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T. & Archer, W. (1999). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87 – 105.

Johnson, A. Go-To prompts for online discussions: Save time and create understanding. Excellent Online Teaching.

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  4. bullet force says:

    In addition to providing a way for students to engage with the content, discussions offer an opportunity for student-to-student engagement, thus adding a social element that is widely considered to be essential to the success of an online learning experience.

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