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).

In his article on designing online discussions, Baker (2011) finds that instructors must determine the strategic purpose for including discussions, and must decide how the discussion fits into the overall course. Does the discussion clearly link to learning objectives? Addressing these issues will help an instructor test if they have selected the most effective prompt. Vonderwell and Zachariah (2005) note that there is more participation when the topic is strongly supported by the content in the course.

Explicitly described and well-structured prompts support the students to interact and co-construct higher order knowledge. Good 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).

Dennen (2005) recommends that the initial prompt be open-ended enough for students to each have a unique response, drawing on their prior knowledge and reflection. This structure works especially well when there is a rubric which expresses clear expectations.

Discussion prompts may be displayed in the “Description” of a CMS 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 twist like an ethical twist to the prompt.

In addition to these rules, Dr. Putchinski frequently adds in learner choice by allowing students to select from two discussions topics.
Here are some ideas for discussion prompts beyond the typical “answer/reply”:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Protocols: Protocols may be used to structure meaningful conversation, as they provide directions for who should speak at a particular time and for how long, and who should listen at a given time. This structure ensures that everyone gets a response. Also, a student cannot simply log in and post a response without reading others’ posts, as the posts build on each other.

Link to example artifact(s)

Graduate Education Example 1

Graduate Education Example 2

Graduate Education Example 3

Graduate Nursing Example

Protocol Example from Zydney, deNoyelles, & Seo (2011): The protocol was called “Save the Last Word For Me”, originally created by McDonald et al. (2003). At the beginning of the week, half the students were asked to post a quote from the reading which they thought was important but particularly complex. They were told not to reveal the reasoning behind the selection of the quote. Then during the middle of the week, two students posted a reaction to each quote. At the end of the week, the students who posted the quote revealed their original interest in the passage and what they learned from reading the reactions from the other two students. This discussion was then repeated the following week with the other half posting the quotes for discussion. Compared to a non-protocol discussion of the same material, the protocol resulted in a more even distribution of social, cognitive and teaching indicators from students. In addition, there was significantly higher instances of shared group cognition rather than individual.

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.

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

Course Discussion: Prompts. (2008). In A. Lamb and L. Johnson (Eds.) Teaching and Learning at a Distance. Retrieved May 13, 2010 from

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

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.

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.

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

Vonderwell, S., & Zachariah, S. (2005). Factors that influence participation in online learning. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 38(2), 213-230.

Zydney, J., deNoyelles, A., & Seo, K. (2011). Creating a community of inquiry in online environments: An exploratory study on the effect of a protocol on interactions within asynchronous discussions, Computers & Education, 58, 77-87.


Originating author(s)

Kelvin Thompson


Aimee DeNoyelles


Kelvin, Thompson and Denoyelles, Amy 2015. Prompts. In Chen, B., deNoyelles, A., & Thompson, K. (Eds.), Teaching Online Pedagogical Repository. Orlando, FL: University of Central Florida Center for Distributed Learning. Retrieved January 20, 2018 from

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