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volodymyr-hryshchenko-V5vqWC9gyEU-unsplashThe discussion board is an important element of the online classroom. One might even go as far as to say that it is the most important element. It’s not only where the instructor teaches (does the job of teaching) and where students engage with the material in a personal way, but it is also what establishes the all important online community, which we know from research drives student participation, retention, engagement, and ultimately their overall satisfaction and success with the course.

This puts a lot of pressure on the discussion questions themselves – those prompts we create to stimulate discussion every week, designed to achieve a particular learning objective. While I contend that it is impossible to really mess these up (because instructors, or facilitators, always have an opportunity to ask follow-up questions throughout the week – this should alleviate the pressure to ‘get it right’ the first time), there are some prompts that are better at sustaining a fruitful, exciting, inspiring conversation than others.

There are a lot of tips for creating good discussion board questions, I’ll focus on one today: Make sure the question you ask does not have a “right” answer.

When we ask a question that has a “right” answer three not-so-good things happen.

  1. You are immediately put into a position to correct a student’s response publicly if they get the answer “wrong.” You can’t have wrong information being perpetuated in the discussion board after all. For example, I taught at a school that provided the discussion prompts for us (we could not change them). One of the week’s discussion board questions asked students to identify the independent and dependent variables in a study. When a student – who was new to the information – ultimately, predictably, and understandably got it “wrong”, I had to find a nice way to say so. Publicly. Students do not like this. And I don’t like doing it, no matter how many ways I found to do so nicely and covertly.
  2. The discussion dies. What is the next student going to say? “Yep, you got that right. I wrote that too. We agree, isn’t that neat?” And, if it doesn’t die (yes, there is always something one can follow up on if one tries hard), it is not very interesting. There isn’t a deep processing of information that leads the students to make connections to the “real world” – which is something the adult learners in our online classrooms are really wanting to do. They are literally going to use this information the next day at work, in a lot of instances. They want practice in the discussion board. They won’t get that practice if they are busy providing “right” answers.
  3.  Students who are later to the discussion board can see the right answers posted by other students and won’t even need to go to the textbook to learn it. True, some LMSs allow us to not show other students’ responses until a student posts their own, but I really don’t like doing this. One, this form of micromanagement tells your student you don’t trust them, which is not the stage you want to set. And two, it’s supposed to be a discussion board. Students are supposed to learn from each other and get ideas from each other and bounce off those ideas with their own. If they can’t access other students’ posts prior to writing their own, how are they supposed to do this? The discussion board is a collaborative learning opportunity. It needs to be set up as such.

Questions that have right answers often fall in lower levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy (list, define, identify, select, recall, etc.) and make for excellent exam questions or individual short essay assignments. But for engaging discussions, you will want to post questions that fall in the mid to upper levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, asking students not to define or select or list, but instead to relate, support, critique, interpret, and apply.

So, in creating your discussion questions, make sure it does not have a right answer. Make sure it doesn’t sound like a long-winded exam question or a short answer question. Have it require your students to digest what they learn and apply it to something they see around them. Have them give examples that don’t come from the textbook. Have them weigh in on what they learned and critique elements they might not agree with. And, if they have an opinion, have them support it with research evidence (giving them practice with this fundamental scholarly skill).

In closing, let’s compare and contrast some not-so-good ‘right answer’ discussion prompts with some better conversation-starting ones.

Not-so-good: List the DSM-5 criteria for Bipolar I Disorder and compare/contrast it to the criteria for Bipolar II Disorder. In what ways does Bipolar Disorder differ from borderline personality disorder that we discussed last week?

Why? Because, if you think about how students will respond to this, the answers will be very similar.

Better: Write a 1-paragraph fictional case study of a patient with either Bipolar I Disorder or Bipolar II disorder. Then, pretend like you are a psychologist arguing with another psychologist about the diagnosis. The other psychologist wants to diagnose your client with borderline personality disorder. Describe your argument.

Why? No two student responses will sound the same and this question requires students to apply the information, not just report it. And, it will be a fun assignment they might enjoy doing.


Not so good: List the signs and symptoms of diabetes mellitus type II and inpatient protocols for treating a patient who has this condition.

Why? All answers will be the same. And there is a right answer. It doesn’t invite conversation.

Better: You’re a nurse on a stroke unit and, per the chart you just read, your newest admit has diabetes mellitus type II. Integrate your role as her stroke nurse with the patient’s needs as a diabetic – what is your approach with her? In a follow-up paragraph, complete this dialogue:

You: Hello, Ms. Smith. My name is X and I’ll be your nurse this shift. I see in your chart that you have diabetes? Can you tell me more about your condition and how you manage it at home?

Patient: Yeah, they keep telling me I have diabetes and I used to take that medication, but I stopped about a year ago. It had some side effects I didn’t like. I think I was misdiagnosed, really.”

You: […] <–what would you say next?

Why? This question gives students practice with a real world situation. It pulls on their creativity and will spurn good conversation since students will handle this patient differently, especially in the dialogue part. And they have to integrate what they know about stroke with what they know about diabetes, adding an additional critical thinking layer.

Do you have any good discussion board tips to share? What is your experience in creating good discussion board prompts? What has or has not worked for you? Please feel free to comment below!

2 Responses to “Questions Without Answers – A Tip For Good Discussion Board Prompts”

  1. willie

    Great insights!

    For sure, the discussion board (DB) is ‘the classroom’ – like the home room where all the students get a chance to meet each day. The DB scenarios are no longer designed by the adjuncts – the university does all the DB scenarios.

    Nonetheless, with an eye towards andragogy, I try to get the adult learner to connect the DB scenario to something in their lives/work. Engage the class from the perspective of your own experiences, but link the experiences to the DB scenario.

    Thanks for the insights.


    • Brooke Shriner

      Thanks Willie! That’s actually a good point. What do we do when we are forced to use DB questions that we don’t necessarily agree with? I think our recourse comes in the form of our follow up questions – like you say here, jumping off the original question and asking students to connect the material with their life and to add in our own illustrative anecdotes. And…if we are feeling particularly brave, we can comment on the quality of the DB in our course evaluations if those are available :)


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