Designing a Prompt

Designing a Discussion Prompt

Wiggins and McTighe define essential questions as "questions that are not answerable with finality in a brief sentence… Their aim is to stimulate thought, to provoke inquiry, and to spark more questions — including thoughtful student questions — not just pat answers" (106). Discussion questions that are solely fact-based tend to inhibit participation because students will find difficulty adding novel information after only a few posts. Instead, use questions with multiple correct answers.

Examples of questions for a high-quality discussion prompt might include (Cain Project, 2008):

  1. A question that asks for more evidence
    • Provide examples to support the argument that …
    • What data is this claim based on?
  2. A question that asks for clarification
    • Give a different illustration of this point.
  3. An open-ended question
    • Linking or extension.
    • Relate ideas to a previous topic.
    • Challenge or support an idea.
  4. A hypothetical question
  5. Cause and effect question
    • What is likely to be the effect of…?
  6. Summary and synthesis question
    • What are the most important ideas related to this topic?
    • Identify unresolved or contentious ideas.
student at desk

Check out some examples of student discussion prompts at the New York Times Student Opinion section at Or read Edutopia's "Mastering Online Discussion Boards" (pdf) and Edutopia's "Effective Student-Led Discussions" by Ryan Tahmaseb.

Potential Pitfalls

While Discussion Boards are a great tool for building community and providing a means for students to share their ideas with the group, there are some common problems and pitfalls:

    • Students may misunderstand directions or may be unsure of what is expected of them.
    • Student comments can become off track or go in a direction that is not supported in the lesson.
    • Students may stall or put off participating in the discussion board until the last minute.
    • Students may not feel a sense of connection with their classmates.
    • Students may react in an inappropriate way by flaming other students or making disinterested or disrespectful comments to their peers or in response to assignments.

It is essential that these problems are addressed expeditiously and in a way that saves face for all group members. While an email message may be sufficient, sometimes it really pays to pick up the phone and talk with the person individually. In the unlikely event that one message is particularly abusive or offensive, you do have the option to delete that message, but use this power only as a last resort (Matthews-DeNatale & Doubler).

Some possible discussion posting problems and solutions might include:

Pitfalls and Solutions

Matthews-DeNatale & Doubler. (2000). Facilitating Online Learning: Tip and Suggestions. In Science in Education. Retrieved from

Akin & Neal. ( 2007, June 1). CREST+ Model: Writing Effective Online Discussion Questions . In Journal of Online Teaching. Retrieved from

Project, C. (2008, June 26). Using Discussion Boards and Wikis. Retrieved from Connexions

Wiggins, G. and McTighe, J. (1998) Understanding by Design. ASCD.

"Effective Student-Led Discussions | Edutopia." 6 Mar. 2018, Accessed 8 Mar. 2018.