Generating discussion in the online classroom can often be a difficult process, especially for those used to facilitating in a more traditional manner. Many learning platforms offer limited opportunities for faculty-student interaction and some instructors often wonder how to best engage students in asynchronous learning environments. Others are concerned with whether or not students will be able to effectively demonstrate subject knowledge given the limited opportunities for face-to-face interaction. Despite the occasionally restrictive nature of the online learning environment, it is possible to engage and interact with students but it is imperative that facilitators understand how to incorporate meaningful discussion into the online classroom.

According to the University of Oregon Teaching Effectiveness Program (n.d.), “online educators who use discussion boards successfully estimate that their interaction with students can be as much as three times the interaction with face-to-face students, and that peer-to-peer interaction is even many times more than that” (“Generating and Facilitating,” para. 2). So based upon those findings, how can instructors make the most of their interaction? How can they capture students’ attention and how can they demonstrate that learning outcomes have been met?

To increase engagement in the classroom it is important to consider what you want your students to know, how students may apply what they have learned to the real world, and whether your questions are open-ended (will they generate discussion among students). Let’s explore these areas further:

What do you want your students to know?

Let the course learning objectives guide the way in which you design your questions. Are you interested in fostering convergent thinkers (students that are able to recite the correct answer), divergent thinkers (students able to demonstrate creativity in their answers), or evaluative thinkers (students who are able to justify or defend their answers)?

  • Questions that promote convergent thinking typically begin with “why” or “how?” If studying Shakespeare’s Macbeth for example, you might ask, “ How is Lady Macbeth responsible for her husband’s death?”
  • Divergent thinking questions attempt to get students to think about the outcome or consequences associated with certain events. In the case of Macbeth you might pose the question in this fashion, “suppose that you are Lady Macbeth’s confidant. You know her intimately as the two of you were childhood friends. Late one evening she comes to you seeking your council, how might you dissuade her from taking the actions she took in the play?” Posing the question as a scenario makes the subject matter a bit more interesting and it allows the student to take a more creative approach in responding to the question.
  • To promote evaluative thinking you might use a collaborative method by asking students to debate. You could separate the class into two groups and have Group A discuss the reasons for Macbeth’s descent into evil, was it a matter of fate? Group B could take the opposing position and argue instead that his demise was purely based upon free will.

How might students apply what they have learned to the real world?

According to Malcolm Knowles, respected adult education theorist, learning is most meaningful when adults are able to draw upon life experience or relate the knowledge they are acquiring to real-life scenarios. For example, if you are asking students to understand a concept from their text, you might present a scenario that directly relates to the concept being taught. Case studies are equally as effective as scenarios when trying to integrate real-world application into your courses.

Are your questions open-ended or closed-ended questions?

To encourage meaningful discussion, your questions should generate a response other than “yes” or “no.” Instead of asking, “did you watch the latest episode of Game of Thrones last night?” Ask, “what surprised or shocked you most about last night’s episode?” Then proceed with a follow-up question to solicit more discussion from the student or other class members. You might say, “That shocked me as well. What are some ways that the situation could have been handled differently?”

In brief, classroom discussion, when done right should encourage student participation and interaction. With minimal effort on the instructor’s part it is indeed possible to engage students despite having little to no face-to-face contact. Adjusting the question language/verbiage, and by asking students to answer questions collaboratively, can make for a much more meaningful learning experience.

If you are interested in learning more about how to write engaging discussion questions, speak with you instructional designer. Also feel free to review the resources listed in the reference section of this article.


  1. Akin, L. & Neal, D. (2007, June). CREST+ Model: Writing Effective Online Discussion Questions. Merlot Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 3(2). Retrieved from
  2. Colorado Community Colleges Online. (2014). Strategies for engaging discussions. Retrieved from:
  3. University of Oregon Teaching Effectiveness Program. (n.d.) Generating and facilitating engaging and effective online discussions. Retrieved from the University of Oregon Teaching Effectiveness Program Blackboard discussion board website:
  4. Kelly, R. (2009). How to engage online students in meaningful discussion. Retrieved from Faculty Focus website: