The transition to online instruction at UW-Madison has increased the use of discussion boards and chat forums. If you are assigning discussion posts on Canvas, the Writing Across the Curriculum program offers a model below for designing stimulating and thought-provoking discussion posts centered around course material. This example is well suited for a discussion-based course with shared texts. It can be scaled up or down depending on the frequency of class meetings.
When designing engaging discussion board prompts, be mindful that the transition to online instruction may have disrupted your students’ sense of routine and normalcy. Be compassionate and understanding—and clear—in laying out expectations for these posts.
Consider breaking a discussion prompt into different parts, each one building off the last, due on successive days. This will give students flexibility in when and how they respond. In the prompt below, note that the instructor clearly lays out what they expect their students to write. The following prompt is from English 142: Mystery and Crime Fiction.
Discussion Prompt Example
Part 1: Answer this week’s prompt in around 100-150 words. This post should go beyond repeating material from lecture and offer a novel insight. Due: 11:59PM Wednesday
How Does This Prompt Work?
Notice how the main task is comparison.
The key terms “genre” and “convention” clue students in to what specifically the instructor wants them to compare in these texts. For your prompts, be sure to foreground key terms or concepts.
These three sub-prompts help clarify for students what steps they should take to compose a thorough and effective post.
Notice the bolded verbs at the start of each sub-prompt (“identify,” “describe,” and “explain”): these give students specific tasks to perform, and they give you specific things to look for in their writing.
You can access the rubric for this prompt here.
Part 2: Once everyone in your group has written an initial post on Wednesday, respond to at least one of your classmate’s ideas by asking questions, adding evidence, strengthening arguments, or pushing back. This response should be 100-150 words. Due: 11:59PM Thursday
Part 3: Return to your own post and consider the questions and feedback from your classmates. Compose a final 100-word response that engages with their ideas, such as by expanding or revising your original idea. Due: 11:59PM Friday
adapted from the WAC sourcebook, available to download here