Designing Trigger Questions

"A free exchange of ideas, opinions, and feelings is the lifeblood of collaborative learning." - J. McKinley



Discussion forums can serve as a learning tool that fosters in-depth, academic discussion, an arena in which students work corroboratively or conduct peer analysis, or simply a place where they can virtually communicate with each other. Discussion forums used well can be an effective learning tool that encourages students to engage in higher order thinking activities.


Before adding Online discussions to your courses you might want to consider how important discussions are and what role they should have in the learning experience. If an Online discussion is integral to your course objectives, you should clearly communicate participation requirements and allocate a representative portion of the course grade to discussion participation. Provide a set of clear, explicit guidelines. Include things like:

  • How frequently you will read and respond to postings.
  • If you will read all postings or only a representative sample.
  • What should and should-not be included in posting (e.g. Use email instead of the discussion board for private conversations, pick a central theme in this week’s readings and note why it is important - support your position, etc.)
  • When posting should be made (e.g. initial postings should be made y “x” day of the week, respond to at least two of your peers’ postings by “x”, etc.)
  • Size and style of the postings (e.g. ‘make your point in your posting, not in an attachment’, ‘proper source citations are required’, use formal or conversational language in the posts, etc.)

Also keep in mind that some students that are new to Online discussions in an academic setting prefer to “lurk”, or be non-contributory browsers. These students may be learning, but just doing it quietly. At the beginning of a class you need to ensure that there are a variety of activities for students to do that encourage active engagement. Having low risk “ice breaker” activities (i.e., introductions topic where students add a brief bio and photo, games like “Three truths and a Lie’ or the “Name Game”) will help the “lurkers” find their Online voice and teach the students how to use the discussion tool.

Creating Questions

Creating good questions is one of the most important factors in designing successful discussion forums. The following are some question possibilities.

  • The open-ended question: Ask for the how’s and the why’s instead of the what’s.
  • The controversial question: That the unpopular stand and get your students riled up.
  • The “naiveté” question: Ask the “dumb” question to get your students talking.
  • The “synthesizer” question: Draw from related reading materials, asking your students to determine what “person A” would have to say about “Person B” because of “C”.
  • The peer facilitator question: Have the students sign up for a facilitation week and give each student responsibility for addressing a major point/topical question, soliciting input from their peers, and posting a summary of the discussion at the end of the week.

In general, encourage students to talk to each other by creating challenging discussion topic in which the sharing of their ideas, experiences, knowledge and skills is useful. Another important factor is keeping the discussions on topic. The following suggestions can assist in accomplishing this goal.

  • Creating well-designed questions that keep students topic focused (see question possibilities noted above.)
  • Create assignments, activities, or projects that permit students to "actively construct" knowledge when interacting with the information from the course.
  • Create discussion threads that incorporate hypothetical scenarios, case studies, or theoretical conflicts to fuel discussions.
  • Create a discussion forum that allows students to openly discuss topics of interest to them. For example encourage them to discuss things like popular music, bands, and movies Online Allow them the freedom to participate and encourage them to do so. This has two side effects: one, it necessitates that they use the course site to participate and two, it encourages them to meet one another Online
  • Provide a new discussion forum for each week or topic. If one forum is used for the entire term the threads may get rather long. And provide parameters or guidelines for what constitutes an acceptable response.
  • Revise threaded discussion questions when responses are off-target. If a question is not working well and students are confused, change it immediately and send out an email to students regarding the change, and post a new thread with the revised question and associated questions.
  • Bring a tread to closure by summarizing the issues presented and resolved in the discussion; pinpoint especially interesting and informative responses by your students. This summary can be emailed to the students, posted to the end of the threaded discussion, or posted in the weekly announcements of the course site.
  • Give clear detailed directions to your students on what you want in their responses at the beginning of each thread.
  • Provide an informal threaded discussion elsewhere in the course. This can be a good place for students to post non-content related questions or to socialize Online
  • When appropriate post reminders that students stay on topic. If students begin to stray from the topic, post an item to the discussion pushing everyone back in the right direction. If the direction the students have strayed is a good one, reinforce it and allow the discussion to focus on the new topic.
  • Provide incentives for students to participate in the Online discussions by attributing a discernible percentage of the grade to this activity (can be tied to the rubric noted in item 2.)
  • The answer to a question asked by one student might be relevant to many, so post answers to a student accessible FAQ course page or forum. This type of resource could quickly build into a valuable resource for current and future students.
  • Privately reprimand and give constructive feedback to students who make off-topic postings or fail to meet posting requirements.
    • Send email messages to those who are falling behind in discussions, or who are reading but not writing.
    • Encourage meta-communication about the process of Online discussions and offer suggestions for improving the experience for all the participants.
  • Delete/hide threaded discussion postings by those students who refuse to play by the rules and then deny them access to the threads and lower their class participation grade.

Sample Activities

Student Centered

  • Have students synthesize the prior week’s discussion postings.
  • Have students generate discussion or review questions, Students can submit questions to you via email or moderated discussion forum. Select a few of the questions and post them to an open discussion forum. You could even have the students who submitted the question be the moderator for the question.
  • Assign a group to be the experts on a topic or section. Have them post a question for that week’s discussion and lead the discussion. Toward the end of the posting period, have the discussion leaders summarize and combine points for their peers.
  • Have a student start the discussion on a topic or chapter.
  • Have the student read an article that offers multiple perspectives on a course-relate topic. They then write a brief synopsis of the article to explain a perspective they support and why. This summary is posted to the discussion forum. Students then read the posting of at least two other students and respond in a collegial manner, with additional evidence from the article that supports or challenges the other students’ interpretations. If a student receives a challenge to a summary they should be able to defend their position, or concede their position. (Gaarrison, 2008) It is recommended that a clearly defined assessment rubric be used to grade this type of discussion.

Promoting Interaction

  • Have students take sides on an issue and defend their position. Poll students in class or Online on a particular question or issue. Then have students support their positions in the discussion forum.
  • Post a number of questions relating to a chapter or unit of study. Have students work in small groups on these questions. Each group will then post their final responses to the discussion forum.
  • Post a sample exam and have student collaborate on answering the questions.

Supporting Student Learning

  • Post a weekly discussion question related to course readings prior to a class session. Use the comments from the Online discussion to generate class discussion.
  • Provide a discussion forum for readings and assignments. Encourage students to post their questions “x” number of days before the next session. Use the student postings to develop lecture materials and resources.
  • Post preview or review questions or concepts in a discussion forum. Have students submit a response in their own words. This allows you to assess the students level of understanding.
  • Have students create reflective discussion summaries or “discussion audits” by posing one or more of the following questions: (Brookfield & Preskill, 2005)
    • What are the two most important ideas that emerged from this week’s discussion?
    • What remains unresolved or contentious about this topic?
    • What do you understand better as a result of this week’s discussion?
    • What key words or concept best captures our discussion this week?
    • What are some resources (e.g., websites, articles, books) that could be used to find further information/ideas about this topic?
  • For individual assignments, have students review postings from the discussion forum and outline the points and themes that were discussed. Select a few good examples and post these for the class.
  • Post a model answer to the discussion as a conclusion to your discussion thread.