eCoaching Tip 3 Developing Effective Questions for Online Discussions

February 11, 2006 (Refreshed July 18 2012; Reviewed Nov 15 2018)
eCoaching Tip 3: Developing Effective Questions for Online Discussions

The discussion forums in an online course are the primary places for community-building, coaching, collaborating, and thinking. They are the functional equivalents of our gatherings in our physical classrooms. Developing the questions that prompt and guide the interaction in the forums is one of the most important design tasks for any online instructor.

This tip describes the characteristics and types of topics that encourage learning and interaction. For example, effective questions are generally open-ended and exploratory. Effective questions require students to inquire within themselves about what they currently believe and know.  Effective questions encourage students to apply new content to personal scenarios.

Constructivist Learning Principle

Before launching into the characteristics of questions, here’s a learning principle from constructivist theory to keep in mind while you are developing questions.

Knowledge depends on past constructions. We know the world through our mental framework and we transform and interpret new information through this framework. (Muirhead, 2006)

This principle highlights how important it is for students to think deeply about what they know or believe because they integrate new incoming knowledge with what is already in their heads. If they do not think deeply, they are likely to simply temporarily grab hold of content and forget it when the course is over.

Getting Started with Developing Effective Discussion Questions

Developing good questions for discussion forums takes practice. You will probably not get it right the first time. But the hints in this tip will help you not to go too far afield.

The first step is to review the course goals and determine the most desirable knowledge, skills and attitudes that you want your students to develop. Core concepts embedded into authentic problems and scenarios are generally excellent discussion starting points.

Creating the discussion forums that support course goals takes design and thinking. The information on the types of questions can guide you in this process.

As a quick reminder, the first discussion forums are always quite easy.  The first forum is generally a getting acquainted forum, asking students to share a few personal details, such as an interesting fact about where they live, work, study, and possibly a favorite picture.  A second discussion forum is perfect for students to state their personal goals for the course. In one of these forums you can elicit information about what your learners know about the course content, such as asking about a leader or scientific discovery that has been most important to them.

Types of Questions that are Best for Discussion Forums

An instructor once asked me, “ I have tried to use a range of questions, from those that are very objective-based such as definitions to those that are more complex such as processes and critiques, following Bloom’s Taxonomy. What are some of the basic types of questions and what types are best for discussion boards?”

I like to think about questions in these three categories:

  • Factual content questions that are the data elements and “enablers” for developing core concepts;
  • Thought questions based on the Socratic method that faculty use with students and that students might use with other students
  • Problem-solving questions that intersect these three areas: a student’s zone of proximal development, a student’s core concept development and customized learning

Here is more detail on these three types of questions.

Factual Questions

Factual questions are generally those questions for which there is a known and verifiable answer. These are often straightforward questions that are the foundations of more complex concepts.  This includes short-answer essay questions, such as the pros and cons of different leadership types.  Students can generally apply these questions to their own professional environment. These include basic principles, guidelines and accepted practices.  For these types of questions, students can also be asked to identify or find ideas from relevant topic resources.

Thought Socratic Questions

Questions based on the Socratic method encourage students to “go within” themselves and clarify what they know and then to provide the assumptions behind their reasoning and even the data behind those assumptions. For example, some typical clarifying questions that can be incorporated into discussion questions and into question debriefings are:

  • What is your main point? And how is it related to…?
  • What do you think is the main issue here?
  • How does this relate to our discussion/problem/issue?
  • What do you think Colin meant by his remark? What did you take Colin to mean? Jane, would you summarize in your own words what Rob has said? Rob, is that what you meant?
  • Could you give me an example?

With the Socratic method students can take over some of the roles, such as questioner, summarizer, and clarifier.

Problem-Solving Questions

Problem-solving experiences are generally good for the following situations:

  • Useful for serious thinking about complex issues
  • Useful for customizing learning and making it relevant to learners’ lives and goals
  • Incorporating challenges from real-world issues
  • Preparing  for learner projects, either individual or group
  • Useful for critical thinking

Problem-solving questions can also range from relatively straightforward scenarios in which the recommended strategies and solutions might be known, or well accepted, to very complex scenarios in which answers and solutions are not known and in need of truly creative and innovative thinking.

As faculty, we can be challenging our students to work on questions for which there are not known answers or strategies.

Discussion Questions that Support Concept Learning

As mentioned above, a good design approach for creating discussion questions is to base a question on one or more core concepts. These questions can provide opportunities for students to apply those concepts in different situations.

The goal is to structure a question that leads students to think through the applications of those core concepts, resulting in integrated and useful knowledge.

Here are a couple of brief examples of discussion questions focusing on core concepts.

  • Business case studies

o  What types of marketing programs, etc work best for small businesses?  For technology innovation companies?

o  Translating a good idea into a company. What are the different ways of doing this?

  • Biology/Genetics

o What if your doctor could choose medical treatments, guaranteed effective, based on your genetic makeup?  Resources at The Genetic Science Learning Center at The University of Utah

  • History/Environment/Anatomy

o Students assume the role of an osteologist and are tasked with identifying the bones found by a farmer. This idea was originally from this resource that is now lost.  However, more problem-solving ideas can be found at

Additional Question Ideas

Here are a few more ideas representing all levels of questioning. You may find that one of these ideas spark a question particularly well-suited to your content and desired skills and behaviors and knowledge of your students. This list was adapted from Bill Peirce, Coordinator of a program for Reasoning across the Curriculum (2004).

  • Conduct opinion polls/surveys before assigned readings to arouse interest in topics and to get indicators of students’ prior knowledge
  • Create cognitive dissonance with discomforting information or dilemmas.
  • Assign writing-to-learn tasks for discussion
  • Present activities that require considering opposing views
  • Assign a mediatory argument promoting a resolution acceptable to both sides
  • Adapt collaborative and cooperative learning techniques, simulations, and role-plays to online uses
  • Ask students to evaluate Internet resources
  • Ask students to reflect on their responses to the course content and on their learning processes in private journals


Bloom, Benjamin (1956) Major Categories in the Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. Retrieved Nov 15 2018  from

Muirhead, B. (2006). Creating concept maps: Integrating constructivism principles into online classes. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning Vol. 3. No. 1. (January 2006) Retrieved Oct 21, 2018 from

Paul, R. (2006). A Taxonomy of Socratic Questioning. Retrieved July 14 2012 from

Paul, R., and Elder, L. (2008). The Analysis & Assessment of Thinking (Helping Students Assess Their Thinking).   Retrieved Nov 15 2018  from Note: The first part of this url refers to the general web site on Critical Thinking. This is a site well worth a visit.

Peirce, B. (2004, Spring 2004). Strategies for teaching thinking and promoting intellectual development in online classes. The Instructional Newsletter.  Retrieved from

Note: These E-coaching tips were initially developed for faculty in the School of Leadership & Professional Advancement at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. This library of tips has been organized and chapters added in the second edition of the  book, The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips coauthored with Rita Marie Conrad. Judith can be reached at judith followed by 

Copyright Judith V. Boettcher 2006-2018