Making Meaningful and Engaging Online Discussion Questions

Students engaging in discussion questions.
Image by Naassom Azevedo from Pixabay

While the online classroom may be a new learning environment for many students and professors, certain truths remain the same no matter the medium. Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that relationships are key to learning. Student – professor communication is important, but so too is student-student communication. One of the best ways to nurture relationships between professors and students is by posing meaningful and engaging online discussion questions.

Researchers find that discussion questions help clarify ideas, understand material, develop critical thinking skills, and retain learning (Aldrich et al., 2017, pp. 17-18). However, not all online discussion questions are useful.

Fortunately, professors, students, and instructional designers have researched online discussion questions for years. While every context is different, I believe there are some necessary components to any successful online discussion.

Build Relationships

Before we talk about the questions themselves, we need to address the environment in which the online discussion questions exist. Ignoring this important factor may negate the hard work you do in crafting your questions.

Professor – Student Relationships

Aldrich et al. (2017) conducted a literature review of what makes for good professor-student communication. They found that important factors included instructor credibility, clarity, classroom climate, social presence, and immediacy (p. 13). For our purposes, I believe classroom climate and social presence are critical.

The authors note that certain professor behaviors like humor and self-disclosure are important for positive student experiences and learning (p.15). The professor communicating availability and support is also important (p.15).

Student – Student Relationships

Distance in online classrooms isn’t always geographic in nature – students feel disconnected from others without the opportunity to interact with peers (p. 17). I find this to be true with higher ed students and doctoral students in particular. Students want positive peer interactions, and they want others to think well of them (p. 17). Your questions should foster those positive experiences.

Diversity and Safety

Below I discuss the importance of encouraging diversity of thought in online discussion questions. However, that can’t happen if not everyone feels welcome. All kinds of ideas and people must feel welcome for stakeholders to have the positive experiences discussed above. Edmondson and Roloff (2009) note that three types of diversity include:

  1. Separation diversity (in-group vs. out-group);
  2. Variety diversity (e.g., gender, professional, ethnicity); and
  3. Disparity diversity (vertical status).

The authors write that diversity doesn’t necessarily automatically provide benefits, but that stakeholders must feel psychological safety which they define as: “the belief that one will not be rejected or humiliated in a particular setting or role…A climate in which people feel free to express work-relevant thoughts and feelings,” (p. 48). They believe such an environment makes an organization a place where risks can be taken. Stakeholders can focus on organizational goals and duties rather than self-protection (p. 48).

To foster psychological safety, Edmondson and Roloff recommend actively addressing the matter by building processes that ensure everyone can voice ideas and have them taken seriously, discussing the value in diverse team perspectives, developing a shared organizational identity, and leaning on expertise at appropriate times (p. 51). I recommend either speaking directly with those with less power or having a consultant do so to see whether all stakeholders are psychologically safe.

Managing Expectations

Even in a psychologically safe online classroom, students need to know what they’re getting into when they engage in discussions. In Andrea Novicki’s 2013 blog post on the Duke Learning Innovation site, she lists several important factors in setting up the furniture of the mind for productive, critical thinking. Try:

  • Giving guidelines to the student for creating good posts;
  • Providing students examples of good conversations to reduce uncertainty and increase comfort (see Novicki’s linked PDF to Harrington and Aloni);
  • Providing a clear, detailed rubric showing students how they will be graded;
  • Sticking with the rubric when you do grade (my contribution – students lose faith in you if they feel you ignore the rubric); and
  • Explaining the purpose of student-student interactions (avoids hurt feelings in my experience) (Novicki, 2013).

Writing Good Questions

I’m going to leave the nuts and bolts of the questions themselves to experts – including you. I think if you’ve built a comfortable classroom and have prepared students for what to expect on the board, everyone is predisposed to have a good experience. Here are two great pages with both tips and examples of how to make an adequate question a great one:

Harrington & Aloni’s Handout

How to Write Discussion Questions That Actually Spark Discussions · Eduflow blog


Aldrich, R.S., Kaufmann, R., & Rybas, N. (2017). Fostering effective communication in online courses. In R.C. Alexander (Ed.). Best practice in online teaching and learning across academic disciplines (1st edition, pp. 11-24), George Mason University Press

Edmondson, A., & Roloff, K. (2019, Fall). Leveraging diversity through psychological safety. Rotman Magazine, 47-51.

Harrington, C. & Aloni, A. (2013, June 1). Promoting critical thinking through online discussion: Developing questions and managing conversations [Conference session]. Lilly Conference on College and University Teaching, Edison, NJ, Unidted States.

Novicki, A. (2013, December 4). Using Online Discussions to Encourage Critical Thinking. Duke Learning Innovation.

Wind, D.K. (2020, June 15). How to write discussion questions that actually spark discussions. Eduflow Blog. How to Write Discussion Questions That Actually Spark Discussions · Eduflow blog

What Else?

Do you have any tips I missed here? Leave them in the comments!

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