Thursday, 4 October 2012

Writing Effective Online Discussion Questions

Question mark made of puzzle piecesThis is based on the CREST+ model outlined by Lynn Akin and Diane Neal.

The ability to participate in group tasks is an important variable in the success of an online course. It encourages a sense of community and is more likely to improve engagement. Discussion forums provide a good way to encourage participation, but it requires skill in asking the right sort of questions. Akin and Neal argue that the CREST+ model provides a framework for creating effective questions which lead to greater participation and a higher level processing of the course material.

The CREST+ model looks at the Cognitive nature of question, the Reading basis, the Experiential possibilities and the Style and Type of question.

Cognitive Nature

There are a range of learning theories and models on which to base questions, such as Constructivism, Androgogy, Bloom's taxonomy. With a a Constructivist approach the students builds meaning based upon the course content. Questions can be structured to reflect increasing complexity. Gilly Salmon's Five Stage model of online learning uses this approach, increasing the student's interactivity and collaboration via carefully constructed questions at the different stages to facilitate the process. Knowles's Androgogy looks at how adults learn and proposes that they want to know why they are learning, need self-direction and want to be responsible for their own decisions, and they bring their life experiences to the course with them. Questions should be constructed that address these needs and help them to learn what will help them in their lives. Bloom's taxonomy, updated by Anderson, ranks enquiry types into a hierarchy. Each level builds upon the other and the student moves to complex understanding and knowledge. The types of question that could be asked would be based on the different levels and where the student was at on the hierarchy. The hierarchy is shown below, with its updated version.

Bloom's taxonomyBllom's revised taxonomy

Each level has a set of terms that can be used to build questions, which are available from a wide range of sources online.

In summary the first step in building questions is for the tutor to decide the best type of question based upon the cognitive needs of the students and the desired learning outcomes. The aim is to encourage participation and engagement from the outset. Higher participation and engagement leads to increased cognitive presence, which enables students to construct meaning through sustained communication, and to engage in critical reflective thinking.


Many courses will have a text book which is a shared resource for the students. Initial questioning can be based upon the shared textbook. It is important to scaffold the questions so that student, online at least, can arrive at more complex understanding together. So for example the forums would be separated, first would be one which concentrates on more basic understanding, before moving on to another forum which requires more complex thinking and critical reflection. Students can learn from each other about how they came to their conclusions, and can learn why others might not be arriving at the same answer.

Questions can also be based on a wider reading of relevant literature. Students would be instructed to find alternative viewpoints and arguments, to share their findings, and resources and citations. It also encourages participation and collaboration, and engages students in finding our about current ideas and research in their field of study.

You should also try to incorporate questions that do not rely on a text. Use videos or podcasts and sound recordings, graphics and images, webquest, scenarios provided by the tutor.

Experiential Element

This is based on Knowles's Androgogy, and constructivist views. Adult students bring a lifetime of experience with them (well, all students do, naturally, but this refers to more mature and varied experience that is often not there in younger students). The tutor should tap into this by providing discussion forums which are based upon the experiences of students and where they can share those experiences, and ask each other questions. They will create their own meanings based upon their prior experiences and peer generated questions can help to build new knowledge. It also increases the sense of community, and builds the students' social presence.

Style and Type of Question

In this case the 'style' of question refers to the students answering questions in pairs or groups. Then changing pairs or groups to discuss the question further. One advantage of this is that it reduces the number of posts in a forum. It also involves collaboration which again will enhance the feeling of community.

Different types of question could include: Metacognitive questions, in which students question their own knowledge, make connections between former and current problems, and reflect on the process of solving problems. Follow-up questions in which students consider different perspectives, provide clarification of thoughts, identify outcomes and answer the 'so what' question within the discussion. Student-created questions can provide thought provoking questions, and puts the student in charge of their own learning. Evaluation and Reflection questions allow students to reflect on the course so far, or any section of the course. For example the 'one-minute' assessment in which students write something they learned form the session and one thing they struggled with. This can then form the basis of a discussion. The tutor may want to allow anonymous contributions.


The discussion forum should be structured. Students need to know when the discussion is open and when it closes. They should know etiquette and protocols expected in an online discussion.  In summary, the tutor should decide the cognitive value of the question, then whether it should be literature based or not. Once this is established, decide whether it should be an experience-based question, then design the style and type of the question, before deciding the parameters for the structure of the question within the discussion forum.

photo credit: Horia Varlan via photopin cc

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