How to Make Bad Discussion Questions Better for an Online Course: Case Study Using an edX MOOC

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I’m enrolled as a student in the MOOC Saving Schools Mini-Course 1: History and Politics of U.S. Education on the edX platform and share in this post discussion questions used for assignment purposes from the course to illustrate what NOT to do when it comes to writing discussion questions. I use these for illustration purposes to help readers who teach online to further improve their own courses.  I share three questions from the MOOC, describe why they don’t work and include revised questions in better and best categories. I’ve incorporated guidelines from “Best Practices for Designing and Assessing Online Discussion Questions”, a webinar hosted by the Online Learning Consortium along with my experience.  In a later post I’ll review the entire course from an instructional design viewpoint, highlighting what worked and didn’t. 

First we examine (briefly) why discussions can be an effective method for learning, and second explore how to write better and best questions by looking at examples of not-so-good questions.

Discussion Questions – Two Layers of Pedagogy
It’s not uncommon for educators to believe that discussion forums are used primarily as a method to encourage student interaction. This is only partly true. There are two layers of pedagogy to the discussion method.

First layer:  Good discussion questions prompt students to evaluate course content, reflect, construct knowledge and articulate understanding through a written response. Scenarios or case studies are also effective where students are required to develop and provide a written solution demonstrating application of course concepts. Student responses are (typically) crafted individually then shared in a forum. This method encourages student to construct meaning and build knowledge by engaging with course materials, reflecting then applying concepts through written explanation.

Second layer:  Dialogue is more meaningful when students have a solid grasp of the concepts accomplished in the first layer.  Students continue to evaluate course concepts, construct knowledge, but also develop alternative perspectives, even critical thinking by engaging in discourse with classmates.  Students are exposed to others’ perspectives in this phase, ask questions, defend their own positions, evaluate alternative positions, challenge others’ positions, construct new knowledge and further develop communication skills. This is the ideal scenario. In reality what’s described will not always happen, but different levels of learning will occur depending upon the student’s motivation, confidence and trust level.

Guidelines for Developing Discussion Questions:
Discussion questions should closely align with course concepts and objectives. Below are guidelines to consider with developing questions for an online forum.

  • Frame the question as open-ended. Begin questions with how, what or why
  • Create questions that will elicit more than one answer or solution
  • Ask students to provide support for their response with examples/references, e.g. personal experience, course materials or outside sources.
  • Create questions that encourage students to voice their opinion, perspective or personal experience
  • Make specific reference to theories, diagrams, authors, and/or page numbers
  • Use words such as ‘describe’ or ‘explain’ to elicit deeper responses.
  • Review and consider the course/module objectives —ask  ‘does this discussion question support the course/module objective or focus?’ Students dislike busy work— discussion questions without a focus and purpose lead to shallow responses

Consider the above guidelines as you read the discussion questions below from the MOOC on edX. I realize that this is not perfect as the questions are out of context given you don’t have full access to the course. However the aim is to provide readers with ideas and tips for online discussion forums. Blue text highlights content from the MOOC. Following I explain why the question is ineffective—bad.  The rewritten questions follow the blue text in better and best categories.

Question One: The Challenge

Read “U.S. Students from Educated Families Lag in International Tests” by Eric A. Hanushek, Paul E. Peterson, and Ludger Woessmann from the Fall 2014 issue of EducationNext: “U.S. Students from Educated Families Lag in International Tests”

Based on the results of this study and the lecture video, are you surprised to discover that the United States has two large gaps in its education — the gap within the country and the gap internationally?

Why it’s a Bad Question: The question is closed, “are you surprised?” •  It encourages no further dialogue or application/exploration of course content • Research suggests majority of MOOC students hold at least an undergraduate degree, this question would not be a surprise to MOOC students and could suggest to MOOC learners the course is shallow, superficial

Better:  “Consider the International PISA results presented in the article and discussed in the lecture video. Identify two or more reasons using course content and/or outside sources that could account for the United States performance. Explain.”

Best:  “1) Describe the impact of PISA scores on education policy in the United States. Identify one education policy designed to raise student performance. Describe the intended outcome(s). 2) Do you agree with the policy, why or why not?”   Note: The course materials would need to provide background information, including primary sources. The questions could be more focused by providing a time range for policy, or even identifying a list of policies.

Question Two: School Boards

Read Lost at Sea by Lisa Graham Keegan and Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Steering a True Course by Sarah C. Glover, both from the Summer 2004 issue of Education Next: Lost at Sea   and  Steering a True Course.  Based on these readings and the lecture videos for this week,  discuss what you feel the role of the local school board should be in the 21st century.

Why it’s a Bad Question: Using the word ‘feel’ in questions does not encourage students to approach questions from an analytical perspective • The readings and videos in this module show only one (biased) perspective • Models a narrow point-of-view

Better:  “1) After reviewing the primary role of the school board as outlined in the materials (examples below) determine the role the school board has in the district where you reside. If there is not a school board in your district consider one from this list [provide list of 4 or more]. 2)  From your research do you think the school board is effective?  Why or why not.”

Best:  “1) After reading about the role of the school board as outlined and the other materials, and considering the poor performance of several districts within the United States as outlined in______,  do you think school boards should have a role in school districts?  Explain. 2)  What do you consider as a viable solution(s) to districts’ poor performance? Share any resources that may be of interest to other students.”

Question Three: The Progressive Movement

Read “Romancing the Child” by E.D. Hirsch, Jr. from the 2001 issue of Education Next:  “Romancing the Child”.

Based on the lecture videos, do you feel Progressive political reforms have gone too far or do they still have an important place in 21st century education? Based on the required readings (both the above article and the this week’s chapter from Saving Schools), do you feel Progressive philosophy should still play a role in 21st century education?

Why it’s a Bad Question: Questions are closed • First question is leading — “Do you think reforms have gone too far“… (it’s better not to include options) •  There is little content or resources that describes the principles of progressive education or its characteristics thus (some) students won’t have the background to respond adequately  • The content is biased and suggests that progressive reform is ‘bad’ • The essay is overtly critical of the progressive education movement, which is fine if there were resources provided to portray additional perspectives

I would eliminate this question altogether. The question lacks purpose and focus.

Alternative question:  What are examples of education reforms put forth by John Dewey in the progressive era that are evident in policy of US public schools today? Discuss.  2) Are these policies still applicable to learners’ needs? Why or why not?”

 Further Resources:

Ten Reasons Students Don’t Participate in Online Discussions & How to Remedy Each

“Why don’t students participate in my online discussion forums?”

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Why don’t my students participate in online discussions?

It is most discouraging for instructors when students don’t participate in discussions or group work in online learning environments. It’s hard not to take it personally. However, one can take comfort in the fact that it’s a common phenomenon—and it’s not just in for-credit online classes, but it’s just as common in not-for credit classes, such as MOOCs. I’ve experienced this frustration when working closely with faculty of for-credit classes, and heard from numerous readers of this blog that face similar challenges.  This motivated me to create a resource featuring the top ten reasons for student non-participation and suggestions for remedying each. We developed several methods to overcome this challenge when I worked as lead curriculum developer for online education at a small university, and many proved effective. I’ve shared these in the following resource. I selected the ten most common reasons by using data from end-of-course anonymous surveys, student interviews, anecdotal feedback from online instructors in my network, and personal experience.

Below is the resource available for viewing and download through Scribd, or click here for the file available for viewing and download in Google Docs. I wrote a three-part series last year on facilitating and evaluating online discussions that readers may find useful; I’ve included the links at the end of this post. Also included in the resources section are links to examples of rubrics for online discussions which may be helpful for instructors that plan to create rubrics tailored to one’s own online class.  Comments from instructors  sharing other methods and resources are welcome.

Note: The suggestions in the following resource are not solely the responsibility of the instructor—the institution offering or hosting an online course should assume responsibility for several functions including: guidance for students including technical support, instructional development support for instructors, and instructional tools and education for online instructors.

Resources: