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

  • Prompt: Both The Wire and The Private Eye significantly revise the detective fiction genre. They are unlike many of the texts we’ve studied so far. For your posts this week, you’ll need to reflect on one particular way that either The Wire or The Private Eye does not fit with conventions of detective fiction.
    • Identify a convention of the detective fiction genre. In order to answer this question, you can think about the protagonist, antagonist, imagery, temporal frame, setting, point of view, tone, etc. of the detective fiction that we’ve read so far.          
    • Describe how The Wire or The Private Eye revises or changes this convention. In order to illustrate your claim, cite a particular scene from one of these texts.
    • Explain the “so what.” Answer this question: Why did the author(s) decide to make this change?

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