How to Develop Effective Discussion Questions - Part I: Introduction and Discussion Question Objectives
Discussion design and facilitation has an indispensable role in online education and is dependent on the development of carefully crafted questions. Student satisfaction has been found to be highly correlated with interactions in the classroom (Kirby, 1999; Mazzolini, 2003). Barker (2001) identifies essential components of online education that are more of an art than a science: "communication strategies that underlie course-related online dialog and student discussions," and "the various learning tasks undertaken by students during a given course." Lim's (2004) challenge of "motivating learners with the right question" is the focus of this paper for developing the objectives, design and administration of discussion questions. Due to the length of this topic, this paper has been divided into three sections. Part II and III will be featured in upcoming editions of the DE Oracle.
Part I - Achieving Objectives Using Discussion Questions
Part II – Guidelines for Writing Questions that Achieve Critical Thinking
Part III – Administrating Conferences / Discussion Questions
A distinguishing feature of online education verses the face-to-face environment are class discussions. Face-to-face discussions are typically spontaneous interplay with the minority of students being actively involved, haphazard in their preparation, with the appearance of mostly the verbal-oriented and self-confident members of a class. Discussions are often a presentation technique to avoid lecture lethargy or sleepiness, and are not considered a prime facilitator of the education process.
In an asynchronous online environment, discussion questions are planned and students and faculty respond with considered answers. Faculty carefully craft questions to fit content and student needs. Respondents, both students and faculty, can take the time to carefully research and develop their responses. Therefore, the achieved learning from online discussions is potentially much greater than in a face-to-face environment.
Achieving Objectives Using Discussion Questions
Learning objectives define the end results that are to be achieved in a course or a learning unit. Discussion questions are a critical means to achieve learning objectives.
Reading of Assigned Materials
Some students may not read the assigned material at all or they read the content but don't really learn the material. Online questions offer intrinsic motivation for students to take the time to comprehend assigned reading material. Mini-lectures, assignments and exams assist in this as well, but discussion questions enables the student to study the assigned reading in a peer motivated manner. Students will be more motivated to read and study the assigned materials knowing that not only the instructor, but fellow students, will be reviewing their work. Online conferencing allows students to give trial answers, and insights are gained from other student's answers. There is a gut check involved in clicking on "Submit."
Questions need to be composed to use terms or concepts found in the reading material which cannot be answered without having read the material. Questions should not request a mere repeating of something from the reading material. The question "What are the three points that the author made concerning innovative idea?" does not lead to an interactive discussion. A better question for the confirmation of knowledge acquisition would be "Illustrate one of the author's concepts on promoting innovation by citing an example of an innovation that illustrates this."
The primary purpose of higher education is the development of critical thinking capabilities. Note that the cognitive domain of Bloom's taxonomy, represented by six thinking categories of knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation, includes competencies that are more than just educational categories. They are requisite competencies of an educated person and a prerequisite for an effective professional at any level. Part of our purpose as educators is to prepare students to be competent professionals. A first line supervisor needs evaluation competencies as does a CEO.
After using the UMUC online library, students often note that the search capability is "awesome." Discussion questions can lead to very creative library searches for information not in the reading material, but relevant to the course. Questions can be tailored to the particular interests of each student. An example of a research question is "Find and summarize an article on organizational critical success factors relevant to the company in which you are or have been employed."
Information Search Habits
A habit that needs to be cultivated among students is to seek knowledge in response to a situation, instead of merely opining personal biases. Library searches fit in this realm, but internet searches are progressively becoming a critical source of data. Students need to apply critical thinking skills to their Internet and other information searches by evaluating, comparing and synthesizing data. Discussion questions that require searching create an awareness of the vast amounts of data available on the Internet. A discussion question such as, "Find a source that describes how to effectively create PowerPoint (or other vendor) presentations and summarize the main points" can assist in looking at search results with a critical eye. Another effective way of addressing this is to provide an example PowerPoint presentation that has problems, and have students critique it using the criteria from a web site of their choice.
One can create interest or develop some background for a forthcoming topic in a course by posing a discussion question related to the topic. For instance, curiosity in learning the background of technology transfer can be aided by a question that requires a search in the United State Patent and Trade Office website for a patent related to a topic of interest. The acquired knowledge and discussion of this topic would help students to gain a perspective, and hopefully interest, concerning technology transfer and its limitations before the topic is covered.
Topic preparation can also be used to reduce stereotypes or biases before a topic is introduced. For instance, a question could be, "Discuss the pros and cons of globalization." This starts a thinking process in motion that helps students focus when reading upcoming assignments and answering future discussion questions.
Course Community Development
The "Quest for Community," to use the title of Nesbitt's (1953) book, is an inherent longing for most people, especially for online students. Over time, discussion questions spontaneously create an appreciation of colleague roles, senses of humor, demeanors, etc. all of which would be missing without discussion questions. Questions that prompt some personal information at the start of the course will begin this process. Introductory questions are critical to student satisfaction and student retention. They also help in the setting of norms for interpersonal behavior in the course room, and probably outside the classroom. Getting students involved in meaningful discussions throughout the course creates a community and seemingly should thereby contribute to retention. As we know, student retention is a critical consideration (as well as faculty positions).
Bloom's Taxonomy. Learning Skills Program, 2005, University of Victoria, 7 Nov. 2006 http://www.coun.uvic.ca/learn/program/hndouts/bloom.html
Bloom, B. S. Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1984.
Barker, Phillip "Creating and Supporting Online Learning Communities", Proceedings of the ED-MEDIA 2001 World Conference on Education Multimedia, Hypermedia & Telecommunications. Tampere, Finland, June 25-30, 2001
Bissell, A. N. and Lemons, P. R., "A New Method for Assessing Critical Thinking In The Classroom", BioScience, vol. 56:1, January 2006
Chyng, S. and Stepich, D.. "Applying the ‘Congruence' Principle of Bloom's Taxonomy to Designing Online Instruction", The Quarterly Review of Distance Education, Vol.4:3, 2003
Conceicao, S. C., "Faculty Lived Experiences in the Online Environment", Adult Education Quarterly, vol. 57:N, 2006.
Kirby, E., "Building Interaction in Online and Distance Education Courses", SITE 99: Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference (10th, San Antonio, TX, February 28-March 4, 1999); see IR 019 584. Retrieved via ERIC 6/28/2007.
Krathwohl, D.R., "A Revision of Bloom's Taxonomy: An Overview", Theory into Practice, Vol. 41:4 Autumn 2002.
Lim, Byung-Ro, "Challenges and Issues in Designing Inquiry on the Web", British Journal of Educational technology, vol. 3.5:5, 2004.
Mazzolini, M. and Maddison, S. "Sage, Guide or Ghost? The Effect of Instructor Intervention on Student Participation in Online Discussion Forums", Computers & Education, vol. 40:3 April 2003, Pages 237-253
Muir, D.J. "Adapting Online Education to Different Learning Styles", in Building on the Future, NECC 2001: National Educational Computing Conference proceedings (22nd, Chicago, IL, 2001)
Nesbitt, The Quest for Community, London: Oxford University Press, 1953
Pascal, B. Lettres Provinciales, letter 16 (1657)