eCoaching Tip 105 Power Questioning Strategies for More Meaningful Discussions

January 31 2012

eCoaching Tip 105: Power Questioning Strategies for More Meaningful Discussions

What is one thing you can do to make your online courses more stimulating, meaningful, and energizing? One area with great potential is the design of your discussion forum activities. Too often the discussion postings become simply another assignment with few meaningful exchanges.

This tip offers four questioning strategies with “thinking power” to encourage more interesting discussions. These questions are derived from the critical thinking work of Paul and Elder (2008) and from research on increasing the quality of discussion in discussion forums (Beuchot & Bullen, 2005; Baran & Correia, 2009; Hull & Saxon, 2009). The set of questioning strategies is followed by three designs for facilitating discussion forums that can serve as frameworks for larger discussion activities.

In general, the research on dialogue and discussions is pointing us to pay greater attention to matching the content and learning purpose to the types of questions and activities in our discussion forums. See if one of these questions or strategies might be a better fit for one of your discussion forums – given your particular students and learning goals.

Power Questioning Strategies

Here are four power questioning strategies that you can use immediately in your discussion forums with only slight revision to your discussion post catalysts. These questions can refer to assigned readings, videos, or any course resources.

  1. Ask students to provide evidence and justificationof their thinking from course readings or other relevant resources. For example, one of the statements in your rubric might use some of the following requirements: “Be sure to include evidence and justification in your rationale — relevant phrases or sentences with their source identified —and state how and why you agree or disagree with the author or with your peer.” Providing evidence and justifications encourages accuracy in thinking.
  2. Include questions on motivation and purpose, such as “Why did X choose to do Y?” You might ask, “Why did Socrates choose to die rather than go into exile? What did he state as his reasons? What else might he have chosen to do? What would you have chosen to do?” Questions on motivation and purpose encourage clear and logical thinking.
  3. Encourage reflection on actions and consequences of actions. For example, ask students to consider and debate the short-term and long-term consequences of a leader’s decisions – or the consequences of the leader’s actions. Questions on actions and consequences encourage breadth and depth of thinking.
  4. Encourage comparisons and contrasts with the thinking of peers. For example, ask students to highlight how the perspectives of others differ from or overlap with the perspectives of others. These types of questions encourage fairness and breadth of thinking.

Facilitation Strategies for Expansive Discussion Forums

Depending on the characteristics of a concept or course topic, there may be times when it is beneficial to have a discussion forum span a two-week timeframe.

Each of the following facilitation strategies (Baran & Correia 2009) describes a multi-phase design for a discussion topic. These longer discussion designs can provide more time for reflection and “co-construction of meaning” that invite students to integrate multiple ideas and perspectives; they go beyond simple “message-posting” to exploration and problem solution:

1. Know, Want, Learn Structure

In the “Know, Want, Learn” strategy, the discussion leader – whether an instructor or student – selects a core topic, idea, or principle; students are then asked to reflect on this topic from three perspectives, in sequence, during the discussion forum period. This is a framework that is best used for difficult and comprehensive concepts, because it requires tapping into what is already known and then using new data and information to integrate and construct the concept.

In their first posting, which can be done at the end of a week’s cycle before the formal forum begins, learners answer these kinds of questions:

  • What do they or others think or KNOWabout a particular topic, philosophy, or person?
  • How, when or from whom did they acquire this knowledge?
  • How have they used this knowledge in the past?
  • What images and words come to them in their mind about this concept?

The results of this first phase reveal what students think or know about a topic before they do a lot of reading or research on the topic. Recall this is a way of knowing what students’ zones of proximal development are, what they are ready to learn.

In the second posting students focus on these kinds of questions:

  • What do they WANT to know about the information, encouraging them to specify the importance or rationale for wanting to know? For example, they may want to know HOW to solve a particular problem, or WHAT STRATEGIES are recommended in certain areas, etc. Getting to a specific question focuses the mind towards a specific response.

In the third posting, learners reflect on what they have LEARN(ed) after completing the unit readings, resources, posting a reflection that might do one of the following:

  • Describe how what they know has changed from the readings and conversation.
  • Share how the knowledge might impact future decisions, or actions.
  • Consider what their next question might be as it relates to them personally.

Now you may ask, where does the interaction between the students and sustained conversation happen? In the first posting, students can be encouraged to notice the sources of information, the potential impact of such beliefs or knowledge, and how that knowledge relates to other experiences or life demands. Students can work individually or in teams to identify potential misconceptions, challenges, etc. By the time of the third posting, on what they have learned, students might specify why the information is important to them, and how they expect or want to use the information.

2. Dream Initiative

This facilitation strategy invites students to go beyond the content and beyond traditional thinking to: propose innovative solutions, raise challenging questions, search for inner goals, develop idealistic scenarios, and discuss ways to achieve them. Here is one example question from an instructional design course (Baran & Correia 2009).

  • If you had the opportunity to design a DREAM initiative, course, or classroom lesson, “How would you go about implementing it at your institution?”
  • A Dream question from a course on web technologies might be, “What business service would you like to develop that would solve an important problem?”
  • A Dream question from a course in basic philosophical questions might be, “What philosophy would you like everyone to be guided by or base their decisions on?”

3. Practice-Focused Discussions

This facilitation strategy focuses discussions on examples of real life scenarios. With this strategy, the faculty member or student presents a case and students need to immerse themselves in the case, analyzing it from a number of perspectives. Over the course of a discussion forum, students might be asked questions such as the following:

  • What other questions or data might be relevant to this case?
  • Have you heard about or experienced cases that share some of these characteristics or might have implications for this case?
  • What actions are definitely not to be recommended?
  • What actions might be recommended from your experiences or readings?

Discussion Forum Research and Questions for Reflection

The research on discourse has many characteristics worth exploring. One question worthy of thought is being clearer about the purposes for our discussion forums. An important design question to ask is whether we are using discussions primarily for gathering evidenceof learningor for stimulating thinkingabout issues and exploring more creative and innovative ideas(Dennen & Wieland, 2007). In the first case of gathering evidence for grading, the discussion post is a learning product that we may want to use for individual evaluation. In the second case, the message discourse may illuminate the process of thinking and learning, revealing how students’ thinking evolves as they gather and organize new information. It is the second case that is sometimes referred to as the negotiation of meaning and co-construction of knowledge.

In fact, going forward we may want to vary our discussion forums explicitly or primarily for one or the other of the purposes.


Researchers are making progress on clarifying issues that help us create more substantive dialogue and discussion exchanges. If you were to choose only one of the references below, I would recommend the article by Nandi, Hamilton and Harland (2012). In particular, print out Table 5: Framework for evaluating interaction quality between students. This table identifies eleven (11) posting criteria and suggests the characteristics of a poor, satisfactory, good and excellent message or posting. You might find this helpful in creating or enhancing the rubric you use for discussion forums.

There is so much to be learned about discussions and discourse. Let me know if you have a particular question that you would like a future tip or webinar to explore.

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Baran, E., & Correia, A-P. (2009). Student-led facilitation strategies in online discussions. Distance Education, 30 (3), 339-361. Retrieved from

Beuchot, A., & Bullen, M. (2005). Interaction and interpersonality in online discussion forums.Distance Education, 26(1), 67-87. Retrieved from

Boettcher, J. V. (2007, 2012) eCoaching Tip 26: Preparing discussion posts that invite reflection and response. Retrieved from 

Boettcher, J. V. (2007, 2012) eCoaching Tip 33: What Makes a Good Discussion Post? Retrieved from 

Boettcher, J. V. (2009) eCoaching Tip 67: Developing Rigor in Our Questioning: Eight Intellectual Standards. Retrieved from 

Dennen, V. P., & Wieland, K. (2007). From Interaction to intersubjectivity: Facilitating online group discourse processes. Distance Education, 28(3), 281-297. Retrieved  from

Facing History and Ourselves. (2013).K-W-L charts: Assessing what we know/what we still want to learn. Brookline, MA. Retrieved from

Hull, D. M., & Saxon, T.F. (2009) Negotiation of meaning and co-construction of knowledge: An experimental analysis of asynchronous online instruction. Computers & Education, 52(3), 624-639. Retrieved from

Nandi, D., Hamilton, M., & Harland, J. (2012). Evaluating the quality of interaction in asynchronous discussion forums in fully online courses.Distance Education, 33(1), 5-30. Retrieved from

Paul, R., and Elder, L. (2008). The analysis and assessment of thinking.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 updated through 2016  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 judith followed by

Copyright by Judith V. Boettcher