Creating an engaging discussion question is not as difficult as it may seem. As the instructor of your course, you are the subject matter expert because of your educational background and work experience. Furthermore, you are surrounded by colleagues who also have years of study and experience under their belts. With such a wealth of real-world experiences from which you can draw, the question is not “What do I ask my class?”, but “What do I not ask my class?”

Below are some tips that provide guidance on how to develop an engaging discussion forum for your online course.

Writing a Discussion Question

Consider the following components of an effective discussion question.

Determine the Objective

icon1Before developing a discussion question, first determine what you want students to achieve. Do you want students to connect a particular week’s concept to their areas of study or career fields? Do you want students to reflect on a general topic, such as math anxiety or cultural diversity? Or do you want students to work on a specific problem that they could approach in more than one way? Determine the objective you want your students to meet and build your question to meet that objective.

Determine the Type of Question

icon2Once you’ve decided on your objective, you can then determine what type of question you want students to answer. The kind of question you ask will either set students up to achieve your objective or set them up for failure.

For instance, Dr. Stanfield wants her students to discuss how learning the concept of compound interest impacts people’s retirement saving practices, but her discussion forum prompt says, “Define compound interest and explain how it works in retirement savings.” Because of how Dr. Stanfield phrased her question, most (if not all) of her students will focus on defining compound interest rather than discussing people’s retirement saving practices, thus not meeting her desired objective.

Therefore, it’s imperative that you determine the type of question you want to ask. Davis (1993) provides a helpful list of question types that you can use in discussion forums. The following types of questions are particularly useful in a discussion forum:

  • Exploratory question: Ask students to state in their own words how to work a particular problem or to explain a particular concept or process. Exploratory questions allow you to gauge whether your students are grasping a particular week’s concepts.
  • Challenge question: Ask students to reflect on an issue related to math (teaching methods, math anxiety, etc.) and to form an opinion on the issue. Challenge questions are best suited for issues that don’t have a clear-cut answer or where debate exists. With this type of question, you encourage students to think critically and to engage in constructive dialogue.
  • Relational question: Ask students to relate a concept covered in class to a real-world scenario or to compare and contrast different procedures. Relational questions force students to see the connection between the subject of the course and real life.
  • Diagnostic question: Present an incorrect solution to a problem, and then ask students to 1) analyze the problem, 2) identify the problematic step(s) to the solution, and 3) solve the problem with the correct steps. Diagnostic questions encourage students to apply critical-thinking skills to solve a problem and demonstrate their comprehension of a particular concept.
  • Action question: Ask students to solve a given problem. The particular problem may be one that students can solve in more than one way. Students must then post their solutions to the problem before viewing other students’ solution. Action questions gauge students’ comprehension of a particular concept and their ability to problem solve.
  • Summary question: Ask students to summarize—in their own words—the various concepts covered in a particular week. Summary questions force students to think through what they have learned and succinctly state main ideas.
  • Other types of questions include cause-and-effect questions, extension questions, hypothetical questions, and priority questions.

Engage the Students

icon3Once you’ve determined the type of question to use, you’re ready to write the discussion forum prompt. When writing a prompt, first create a brief introduction that provides context for the question, explains your purpose for asking the question, and sets forth your expectations for the students. If you don’t introduce your discussion question, students will have little incentive to thoughtfully engage the topic. For example, consider Professor Marsh’s discussion forum on math anxiety.

What is math anxiety? Define and explain.

Math anxiety is an excellent topic to engage with students; however, the way Professor Marsh presents the question is close-ended and vague. The question is close-ended in that students don’t have to write anything that can foster discussion among other students. Although various definitions of math anxiety exist, most definitions generally agree on certain fundamental characteristics. Thus, students’ responses will all be very similar. The question is also vague in how it asks students to explain math anxiety. What do they need to explain? The causes of math anxiety? The symptoms of math anxiety? Those whom math anxiety affects? Professor Marsh has chosen a topic ripe for discussion, but the way she presented it won’t encourage student engagement and interest.

Professor Marsh can strengthen her discussion forum by providing some observations she’s made about math anxiety while working as a high school teacher. Using her observations as a springboard, she can then set the topic of math anxiety in the context of an ongoing discussion among math educators about whether or not math anxiety is real.

After introducing the question, Professor Marsh needs to determine what type of question she wants to ask and then set forth her expectations for the students. In doing so, Professor Marsh reduces the need for students to guess what they must do to fulfill the assignment requirements. After tweaking her discussion question, Professor Marsh improved her discussion forum to give students better direction and encourage higher quality dialogue.

Certain words, when uttered before students, wield significant power. These words do not discriminate, striking fear in the hearts of even the most academically astute. Fail, essay exam, and research paper are such words. They pale in comparison, however, to the one word that induces nausea, cold sweat, and rapid heartbeat in students nationwide. What is that one word, mighty in clout and unyielding in power? Math.

I have taught Algebra I at the high school and college levels for more than 14 years, and in my experience, I have found that most students have dealt with some level of fear when it comes to math, particularly algebra and higher.

At the beginning of every new term, I ask a series of questions to gauge where my students are regarding math, including: Who of you tried to change your schedule when you saw that you had to take math? Who of you groaned or became upset when you saw math on your schedule? Who of you have put off math until you absolutely had to take it?

It is safe to say that in almost every class I’ve taught, the majority of students raised their hands to one of these questions. But why? Why is there such animosity toward math?

Math anxiety is a fairly common term in academic circles. In short, math anxiety is any form of anxiety that results from mathematics. The students who raise their hands to my questions all exhibit some form of math anxiety.

In this discussion forum, I want you to discuss the following about math anxiety:

• How do you define math anxiety?
• What are some causes of math anxiety?
• What are some tips for overcoming math anxiety?
• In your opinion, is math anxiety real, or is it imagined? Support your answer.

You are encouraged to reference a minimum of two sources to inform your work in this post. You must write in complete sentences, and your post must contain a minimum of 300 words. You also need to reply to at least two of your classmates’ responses; your replies should be substantive and contain a minimum of 150 words each.

Note how Professor Marsh’s discussion forum is specific and purposeful. She sets up the question with an introduction that hooks the students, provides her experience to set the context, and then asks two types of questions to engage the students (exploratory for the first three questions and a challenge question for the fourth). Professor Marsh then provides her expectations for the discussion forum.

Assess the Question

icon4Publishing your discussion forum in your course doesn’t mean that your work is complete. One of the best ways to gauge the effectiveness of your discussion question is to see how your students interact with the question. If you’re teaching several sections of a course in the same term, then by the end of the term, you should have a good sample from which to assess your question’s effectiveness. If you’re teaching only one section of a course during the term, then wait until you’ve taught the course at least twice before determining the question’s effectiveness.

Regardless of when you assess your discussion question, be sure that there isn’t a significant gap between when you initially posted the discussion question and when you assess it. You want your objective and thought process to be relatively fresh in your mind as you assess the question.

When you’re ready to review your discussion question, look for the following:

  • Yes–no answers: Do students’ answers tend to be yes- or no-type answers? If so, your question is more than likely close-ended; its wording doesn’t require students to elaborate on their answers. Rephrase the question so that students are forced to provide detailed answers.
  • Purely factual answers: Are students’ answers very similar to each other? If so, the question is more than likely worded such that students are relaying an answer they found in the course lecture or reading. An illustration of such a question is in the example about math anxiety (“What is math anxiety? Define and explain.”).

Don’t assume that poor student responses are the result of poor attitudes or work ethic on the part of the students. Although this may be the case for a handful of students, the quality of student responses tends to reflect how well the discussion question is formulated. Your expectations for student involvement should be reflected in the quality of the discussion question.

Be Involved

icon5A carefully crafted discussion forum can enhance student responses and involvement only so much. If you’re not involved in the discussion forums, then your stated expectations are just empty suggestions and the discussion question just a formality—one more thing to check off in the course to-do list. The level of student involvement reflects the instructor’s involvement. So be involved in discussion forums!

A discussion forum is an excellent medium to share with students what you’ve learned from your own studies and experiences. You can also use a discussion forum to emphasize important concepts covered in a particular module or to elaborate on a topic that the course lecture or readings didn’t cover in depth. Rather than thinking of discussion forums as another assignment, view them as an opportunity to encourage reflection, spur discovery, and enhance learning.



Davis, B (1993). Tools for teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.