Many of the same characteristics that make discussion work in person also apply online. However, you may find it helpful to use different types of discussion questions to take advantage of online environments. In online discussions, students will likely have more time to formulate their responses and to consider ideas that have been raised by others. You may therefore be able to ask more complex questions than you might during an in-person discussion. You can lay out multi-part questions rather than building them step-by-step as you might in person. Students will also have access to (and opportunity to incorporate) a large range of outside examples to support their ideas, so you might ask more questions that encourage them to look for such examples and to bring them into their conversation.

It is useful to frame discussion boards with a focused prompt that contains a question. These prompts are a starting point for discussion, so pose open-ended questions, multiple questions, and/or explicitly state that students should feel free to use your questions as a starting point but to pose their own questions as well.

For example: “The effect of COVID-19” might make sense as a title but doesn’t tell the students what you want them to discuss in detail. A more effective prompt might be “Is COVID-19 the next global pandemic?” However, this question doesn’t build room for much discussion. A more effective question would be “How should the media responsibly cover COVID-19 as a global pandemic?” This gives students room to explore numerous aspects of media coverage and even notions such as what it means to “responsibly cover” an issue. It also leaves room for students to contribute a variety of ideas whenever they step into the discussion. 

Different Types of Prompts

Consider how you could use different types of prompts to spark written discussions: 

Case studies

Provide a specific scenario to which students need to apply concepts they are learning in class. Consider linking to news stories or other examples for them to analyze/discuss.


Asking students to analyze multiple sides of a debate can create deeper conversation. You could begin by asking them to support or analyze one position within a debate and then ask them to do the same for another position. To support the other side, they might research that position, anticipate counterarguments to the position they have already considered, or respond to another student who has presented a different position).

Provocative statements

You could make a provocative statement and ask students to respond. To move this beyond simply sparking conversation, you could require that students provide specific, credible (cited) evidence to support their responses. A next phase of discussion could then ask which responses/evidence students found most compelling, and why. 

Focus on differences in audience or modality

Ask students to look for examples of how a concept/idea/argument is presented to different audiences or through different modalities (written, spoken, visual, etc.). Then ask them what differences they notice between those examples and to consider why those differences may be present.

Transfer or application

Use discussion as an opportunity for students to pull in real-world examples or otherwise apply what they are learning to cases that they find on their own. This activity parallels the “case studies” mentioned above, but puts the onus on students to find examples.

Facilitating Discussion

Even though you are not physically present with your students, you will want to be involved in discussions. Your comments can respond to multiple students at once and could be an excellent model for how to synthesize disparate ideas and push the discussion forward. Consider how you usually interact with students during an in-class discussion. If your expectation is that they respond to each other and not to you (and only you!), your expectations online can be the same. 

When responding to a student’s post (or to contributions by multiple students), you can help keep students tied to the topic at hand. For example, you might pose questions such as:

  • That’s an interesting example; can you flesh out how it illustrates X theory?
  • How does your idea relate to [classmate]’s perspective?
  • Which of our readings best supports that viewpoint?
  • Can you walk us through your reasoning so we can see how you arrived at that conclusion?
  • How might you extend or build upon [classmate]’s idea using your own example?

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