Uses of the Discussion Board: Student-Generated Discussion Questions

When I taught my first online class, I knew that I had to be even more intentional about facilitating student interaction with (1) the course materials, (2) the other students, and (3) myself as the professor. Screen Shot 2016-02-15 at 3.25.00 PMI wanted to make sure my students were not only understanding but also thinking critically about the assigned readings. However, instead of thinking of more creative ways to hold students accountable for this, I gave very simple multiple-choice reading quizzes. While this is not necessarily bad practice, it was not active, interactive, or critical at all. I then started requiring students to use the discussion board to discuss the readings. But when thoughtful, analytical discussions didn’t always spring up naturally, I began to create discussion questions for them – directing them to answer the types of analytical questions they should be learning to ask on their own instead of actually helping them build that skill. Learning how to ask interrogating and analytical questions is learning to be a critical thinker.

Active learning and student interaction go hand in hand, so requiring students to post on a discussion board is a great way to promote interaction online. Most often this involves the professor preparing discussion questions ahead of time and requiring students to respond to the professor. Going further, in order to make sure that students are actually engaging with each other, the professor can then require students to respond to their classmates’ posts, and even having the original poster compose a rejoinder. This model, with clear expectations (e.g. specific minimum word counts for each task), can be very effective in promoting dialogue and interaction. But what about adding another layer of interaction to the discussion board with student-generated discussion questions?

I now have students post a notable quote or cite a passage from the reading (or lecture, if you are including those as course materials) along with one or two “analytical questions.” I require this original post to be at least 150 words. The other students and I respond to the analytical questions. This practice promotes guided and meaningful interaction with me, the other students, and the course materials. I often split students into groups (depending on class size) and have one group be the question-posters and another be the response group, then flip it the following week. Through trial and error, I learned I must spend some time clearly explaining, deconstructing, and modeling good, analytical discussion questions. The first week I provide some very good but slightly flawed example questions that we can evaluate (see a brief example below).

One of my students last semester exclaimed, “Coming up with analytical questions is so much harder than responding to the ones you give us!” Indeed, we know as professors that coming up with good, thoughtful discussion questions each week can be challenging and time-consuming because they force us to think deeply about the materials and their relationship to our overall course themes and objectives. But this practice allows the students to lead their own discussion while also letting me keep the course on track and facilitate their learning. One student explained that when she “saw the types of questions other people were posting, [she] actually learned how ask better ones.” That’s the idea.

Consider combining some student-generated discussion questions along with professor-prepared discussion questions. See some examples of assignment descriptions and modeling below—feel free to cut and paste!

  1. Example of DQ assignment description and sample evaluation:

Discussion Questions:

How to write a detailed question focused on the sources

Compose a question/set of questions over the readings for the week. You will submit the questions by XXX. The purpose of this is to (1) help us learn to interrogate sources, and (2) to allow you to lead your own discussion by arriving with ideas and questions already formulated. 

You must either quote one of the readings or refer to a specific section. This way your question is always rooted in the sources and will give the rest of us a jumping off point for discussion. Your question must also be at least 150-200 words.

Asking a good question:

A good analytical question demands an answer that is not just yes or no. We are not trying to memorize facts, but analyze concepts. Instead of “what,” “why” and “how” allow for broader, more conceptual questions to emerge. Let’s look at a few examples:

Discussion Question Examples—What are the strengths and weaknesses of each?

Example 1) In our reading for this week, the main theme I noticed in the description of Carolingian reform was the desire for “order” in society (see Chapter 5, especially pages 66-67).  What relationship does this have to Benedict’s Rule, i.e. How is Benedict’s Rule a microcosm of this concept of order? Why was this a concern for the Latin West in the Middle Ages?  Benedict exhorts his readers to “Live in fear of judgment day and have a great horror of hell. Yearn for everlasting life with holy desire.” Is this command applicable to regular clerics only, or would it apply to the laity of the medieval church? Is the concept of hell more foreign, less visceral/immediate to those of us who live in a secular society than it was in the Benedictine centuries? Has the concept of hell in today’s world been erased, or perhaps replaced by something else– a fear of death?

Example 2) How did Mary, about whom so little is said in the Gospels, become a central figure in Christianity and venerated across the globe? More specifically, the virginity and purity of Mary were major themes in the early Christian writings about Mary, especially the Protogospel of James. Why were certain Christian communities so fixated on defining the exact parameters of Mary’s virginity—in other words, what is at stake in her perpetual virginity? Would having sex with Joseph in the confines of a marriage been wrong? Furthermore, Rubin states on page 11 that “there was no institution of celibacy and virginity in the Jewish mainstream.” So where did this fixation come from?

2) Example of Professor-led Discussion Requirements:

Discussion Board Requirements and Guidelines

In response to the discussion question

  1. You will post an original response of at least 200 words
  2. You are required to write one short response (at least 50 words) to at least two other students’ posts
  3. You will post a final rejoinder (at least 100 words) to classmates’ responses to your original post
  • You must include a specific reference to/citation from our course materials (reading, lecture, etc.)
  • Your original post is due XXXX, and your responses and rejoinders are due XXXX.
  • Comments should engage with the CONTENT. Arguing is fine and even encouraged, but do so in a courteous manner. Feel free to push back on the ideas presented in the blog, but not on the person presenting them.
  • Tonight, visit (relevant blog or news site) and read through some discussion comments and rejoinders to get a feel of what types of comments are productive and which are not. 

3) Example of our deconstruction of a thoughtful response to a discussion question about the clerical marriage debate in the Reformation. You can model this online using the comments function in word to show your students what you’re looking for:

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