Discussion Prompts

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Discussion prompts are the written “springboard” from which online discussions are launched and are essential to encourage shared understanding (Du, Zhang, Olinzock, & Adams, 2008). Discussion prompts can vary from pithy (e.g., “Discuss [Topic X]”) to verbose (e.g., an entire printed page of instructions). However, the best standard for gauging the effectiveness of a discussion prompt may be the degree to which students engage with the topic through unique, critical, and personal substantive postings (Thompson, 2009). Explicitly described and well-structured prompts support students’ interaction and co-construction of higher order knowledge.

Discussion prompts may be displayed in the “Description” of a discussion topic, as the first posting to an online discussion, or in the body of a content module.

Dr. Linda Putchinski in UCF’s College of Business Administration has three rules for creating discussions prompts:

  • Rule 1: Make the prompt relevant to your course content.
  • Rule 2: Make the prompt current, such as something recently in the news.
  • Rule 3: Add a bit of controversy such as an ethical twist to the prompt.
  • (optional) Rule 4: Add in learner choice by allowing students to select from two alternative discussions topics.

In addition to these rules, Dr. Putchinski frequently adds in learner choice by allowing students to select from two discussions topics.

Discussion Prompt Types

Effective online discussion prompts provide a frame of reference through an associated shared experience or learning activity, but there are numerous creative ways in which this context can be brought to bear. For instance, discussion prompts may involve or invoke personal experience, hypothetical scenarios, opinions (with substantiation), student-created work, video clips, etc. (Course Discussion: Context, 2008; Course Discussion: Prompts, 2008).

Here are some ideas for discussion prompts beyond the typical “answer/reply” structure:

  • Debate: Kanuka, Rourke, and Laflamme (2007) found that discussions structured like debates encouraged students to exhibit higher order cognitive skills, and Richardson and Ice (2010) found evidence of critical thinking.
  • Role Play: Have students assume a fictional or non-fiction person and speak from their point of view.
  • KWL: This is the “What do you know? What do you want to know? What have you learned?” structure. Baran and Correira (2009) found that this allowed students to bring in prior knowledge and helped guide the course of the discussion. The students also found that to be the efficient and effective by students, due to the fact that the structure largely kept the discussion focused and progressing.
  • Application: Asking students to engage in practical applications encourages higher-order thinking. For instance, Koh, Herring and Hew (2010) found that when the discussion concerned a project-based activity, the students had to explain and defend their strategies for the activity.
  • Scenario: Pose a ‘real-life’ scenario for students to address. It is helpful to provide a web resource that describes a current event.
  • Review: Have students share projects/papers they are working on and ask for peer feedback.
  • Visual Metaphors: Offer a visual for the students to interpret and discuss. For example, Joyner (2012) created a discussion activity which asked students, “what five words describe aspects of your best work experiences?” and “what five words describe aspects of your worst work experiences?” When all students had contributed to the discussion, she created two word clouds using the web application called Wordle. She then asked the students to interpret the word clouds, which contained the words of all of the students. She also asked them to apply their understanding of the word cloud; “If you were a manager, what would you pay attention to in order to create a positive work experience?” This discussion prompt helps students first think and relate to the material individually, then see what others think, then interpret as a whole group.

Discussion Prompts in Student Blogging

Thompson and Wegmann (2011) found that public blogs implemented with students in place of online discussions could realize many of the benefits of online discussions. With little modification, well-constructed discussion prompts were applicable to these blog-based interactions (Thompson and Wegmann, 2011, 2012).

Link to example artifact(s)

Link to scholarly reference(s)

  • Baker, D.L. (2011). Designing and orchestrating online discussions. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 7(3), 401-411. http://jolt.merlot.org/vol7no3/baker_0911.pdf
  • Baran, E., & Correria, A. (2009). Student-led facilitation strategies in online discussions. Distance Education, 30, 339-361.
  • Course Discussion: Context. (2008). In A. Lamb and L. Johnson (Eds.) Teaching and Learning at a Distance. Retrieved May 13, 2010 from http://eduscapes.com/distance/course_discussion/context.htm
  • Course Discussion: Prompts. (2008). In A. Lamb and L. Johnson (Eds.) Teaching and Learning at a Distance. Retrieved May 13, 2010 from http://eduscapes.com/distance/course_discussion/prompts.htm
  • Dennen, V.P. (2005). From message posting to learning dialogues: Factors affecting learner participation in asynchronous discussion. Distance Education, 26, 127-148.
  • De Smet, M., Van Keer, H., & Valcke, M. (2008). Blending asynchronous discussion groups and peer tutoring in higher education: An exploratory study of online peer tutoring behaviour. Computers & Education, 50, 207-223.
  • Du, J., Zhang, K., Olinzock, A., & Adams, J. (2008). Graduate students’ perspectives on the meaningful nature of online discussions. Journal of Interactive Learning Research, 19, 21-36. Retrieved from http://www.aace.org/pubs/jilr/.
  • Gilbert, P.K., & Dabbagh, N. (2005). How to structure online discussions for meaningful discourse: A case study. British Journal of Educational Technology, 36, 5-18.
  • Joyner, F. (2012). Models and metaphors: Developing critical thinking in asynchronous threaded discussions. Presented at Sloan-C 18th Annual International Conference on Online Learning, Orlando, FL. Retrieved from http://sloanconsortium.org/conference/2012/aln/models-and-metaphors-developing-critical-thinking-asynchronous-threaded-discussi
  • Kanuka, H., Rourke, L., & Laflamme, E. (2007). The influence of instructional methods on the quality of online discussion. British Journal of Educational Technology, 38, 260-271.
  • Koh, J.H., Herring, S.C., & Hew, K.F. (2010). Project-based learning and student knowledge construction during asynchronous online discussion. The Internet and Higher Education, 13, 284-291.
  • Penn State Learning Design Community Hub (2008). Types of questions for online discussion. Retrieved November 3, 2011 from http://ets.tlt.psu.edu/learningdesign/crafting_question/quest_types
  • Richardson, J.C., & Ice, P. (2010). Investigating students’ level of critical thinking across instructional strategies in online discussions. The Internet and Higher Education, 13, 52-59.
  • Thompson, K. (Producer/Host). (2009, May 31). 5 design decisions to facilitate better online student engagement [Episode 4]. Of Courses Online. Podcast retrieved April 8, 2010 from http://ofcoursesonline.com/wp-content/uploads/004_five_design_decisions_engagement.mp3
  • Thompson, K. and Wegmann, S. (2011). Is student blogging a suitable alternative to online discussions? A connected stance applied. Presentation at Sloan-C ALN Conference, Orlando, FL. Retrieved from http://ofcoursesonline.com/?p=130.
  • Thompson, K. and Wegmann, S. (2012, October 10). A comparison of interaction patterns in student blogging: Instructor-chosen vs. student-chosen topics. Presentation at Sloan-C ALN Conference, Orlando, FL. Retrieved from http://ofcoursesonline.com/?p=269
  • University of Waterloo. Online discussions: Tips for instructors. Retrieved November 3, 2011, from: https://uwaterloo.ca/centre-for-teaching-excellence/resources
  • Vonderwell, S., & Zachariah, S. (2005). Factors that influence participation in online learning. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 38(2), 213-230.


Kelvin Thompson, Aimee DeNoyelles, Baiyun Chen and Linda Futch (2016). Discussion prompts. In Chen, B., deNoyelles, A., & Thompson, K. (Eds.), Teaching Online Pedagogical Repository. Orlando, FL: University of Central Florida Center for Distributed Learning. Retrieved August 23, 2017 from https://topr.online.ucf.edu/discussion-prompts/.

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