Creating good discussion topics

It is a frequent maxim among online educators that’s the discussion board is the heart of the online classroom. Indeed it is, and it is also the part of online teaching that is perhaps the most daunting for novice online professors. There are a number of different strategies for managing a discussion board, and while I won’t get into those here, I think it’s worth while discussing the types of things that make good discussion questions.

I firmly believe it is my role as an educator to have students engage with and demonstrate knowledge of the material that I am presenting to them. I also require that they demonstrate critical thinking skills, and can apply the coursework to their everyday lives. I teach humanities, and I think a lot of students go into the course believing that there is no real application for this stuff, and most of them leave feeling quite enriched, much to their surprise.   So, when I craft my discussion board, I want the discussion to meet certain criteria:

1. I want the question to be stimulating and open ended, possibly a bit provocative.

2. I want the question to force the students to engage with the material they have read or viewed, and to form opinions about it.

Tn the past when I have been given course shells to alter, the problems with the discussion board questions have come in two categories : the first problem is that some of the questions did not require critical thinking skills, they were questions with specific right and wrong answers that ONLY demonstrated command of the material. The second bit of that is good, but it completely shuts down discussion.  If there is one right answer, students really aren’t going to be discussing very much, now will they?

The second kind of problematic discussion question, from my view, is the one that refers to the course material, yet does not require students to engage in it. An example of this would be to state that gladiatorial games in ancient Rome were nasty and exploitative, can we think of any similar sporting or entertainment spectacle today that may have similar features. Sure, that’s going to get the students talking, and they may understand at the end of it that gladiator games were nasty, but because that can be inferred from the question itself, and it does not force the students to do any extra reading or to show that they themselves know anything about the context of the original sport. In other words, they can totally fake it.

One of my favorite discussion questions from my early Western Humanities courses involves getting them  to read a section from the Roman poet Juvenal, to discuss the ways in which his writing may still be relevant today, and to see if they can relate to it at all. I have been amazed by how much his work deeply resonates with my students, and the frustrations that it inspires in them that they are all too willing to discuss.  And in reading the discussion posts I can tell that they’ve read it, and they’ve taken something away from it. And that makes me feel like I’ve done my job.

2 Responses to “Creating good discussion topics”

  1. Rochell Says:

    Thanks for the engaging class. I enjoyed it immensely!

  2. Amy Says:

    Thank you, Rochell! That means a lot 🙂

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Online Educational Specialist