Let’s Give ’Em Something to Talk About—Part II Writing Engaging Discussion Forum Prompts

by Guest Author

Guest Post by: Leslie Fischer.

Leslie Fischer teaches in traditional, hybrid, and online classrooms at SPS and Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. She has taught writing, literature, and communication at SPS for 28 years and has taught at the university level for 34 years.  Reach her on twitter @LeslieAFischer or by email at l-fischer@northwestern.edu.

In a previous blog post, I wrote about the professor’s online presence in discussion forums. Part two focuses on writing discussion prompts that cultivate distance learning students’ active learning. Active learning depends on students being both socially and cognitively present; throughout the term, develop an array of prompts that foster both. A variety of prompt types will also keep students engaged all quarter long. Below, you’ll find prompts that have generated lively online discussions.

Responding to a Text or a Case

This traditional prompt can ensure students’ cognitive presence if it is treated with rigor. Such a prompt provides an opportunity for the professor to link the discussion to specific learning objectives. Posting a case or a provocative reading and asking intriguing questions to launch the discussion will help students think through ambiguous or complex situations and apply course principles to new material.

For instance, in a business communication class, I have presented students with details of a small business that is challenged in its internal/staff communication, customer correspondence, and social media presence. The questions I set regarding this prompt enable students to understand the different communication requirements for various forms of writing and encourage students to see how challenges in the different genres are part of an underlying systemic problem in the small business.

Appealing to Students’ Social and Cognitive Presence

In the eighth week of one term, I asked stressed-out business writing students to provide an example of a communication that made them happy that week. There were a number of quite wonderful posts, and the one that stood out was from a father who wrote about how his daughter researched and wrote her first letter to Santa Claus—he included a picture of her charming letter. The student wrote of how his daughter had a moment of joyous recognition that her own writing could influence her world.

This prompt yielded a bounty of posts that developed and supported both the cognitive and social presence of the students. The prompt demanded that writers reflect on their own encounters with writing in the world, and students used their writing skills to share a relatable experience with the rest of our class community.

Using the Technology Available

With the Podcast feature on the Canvas discussion boards, you can create some very stimulating prompts. I have asked students in SPS’ Leadership and Organization Behavior program to interview a mentor who inspired them to leadership. When each student had posted the audio interview, we had a lively and informative discussion as well as a great repository of inspiration.

Reflecting on the Nature of Learning Through Technology

Sometimes a discussion prompt can bring the technology itself into question. In Stanford University’s popular MOOC Digging Deeper 1: Making Manuscripts, one of the first discussion questions was “what do you miss in looking at a digital reproduction of a manuscript as opposed to encountering the physical object in a library or repository?” This question prompted many reflective responses and many trips to visit local repositories of manuscripts, augmenting student engagement beyond the electronic classroom.

Inviting Students to Have a New Experience

Students are often intimidated by what they perceive as difficult course material. Online discussion forums can make intimidating material more accessible.

When I teach literature, I try to demystify poetry, to make the students open to the types of experiences they might have as they read poetry. I ask them to write one haiku every day during the week of discussion, and I also post my own. I’m no Bashō, but I do try to write at least some of the haikus to include the class’ common experience.

Most students find this reassuring and approach the reading of more complex forms of poetry with minds receptive to the possibilities and delights of poetry. For further ideas on making poetry accessible, Peter Elbow writes of “Poetry as No Big Deal” in Writing With Power.

Playing Casting Director

For a literature class, where we were discussing character, I asked students to cast Shakespeare’s The Tempest with modern actors. In addition to their cast lists, the students posted pictures and rationales for both individual choices and why certain actors would work well together in particular scenes. I was amused to find, in a cohort program, that the students took to casting each other in key roles, serving an unexpected social purpose as well as cognition of the principles as I had originally envisioned.

Honoring Each Student’s Quest for Knowledge

Toward the end of the term, ask students to relate interesting information that they have uncovered in their research but could not find a place for in their final essays, presentations, or other assignments. This prompt broadens the community’s knowledge base and reinforces the value of the time they have spent on research, even research for which students have no immediate need.

Putting Students in the Professor’s Seat

Allow your students to take ownership of the discussion forums; let them research and develop prompts that intrigue them. With guidance, students make great teachers and learn a lot in the process. It’s best to model the types of prompts you expect first. Write guidelines of your expectations to help your students succeed in developing great learning experiences for everyone in the class.

These examples have been meant to inspire you to develop prompts relevant to your own disciplines and online courses. I would love to hear about interesting prompts you have written or answered; these can be posted in the comments section below.