Herbert Watson was an English professor teaching a course on American poetry when the COVID-19 pandemic closed the campus. Like faculty members across the country, he quickly shifted to remote instruction. Watson was old school and not quite ready to do Zoom classes. So, he decided to post discussion questions for students to respond to via an online discussion forum. His instructions were succinct. Each student needed to post a reflection on each poem. To foster discussion, the students were also required to post three times for each poem in response to the comments made by their classmates. With these instructions he thought he might enable online discussions like the ones they might normally have in class.
The result was a disaster. The first responses were often superficial, but the subsequent responses were even worse. They would say things like, “I agree”, “You da man”, or “What a stupid idea.” There was absolutely no depth to the discussion and no real connections between the students’ contributions.
Watson decided to stimulate deeper thinking in the discussion by beginning each discussion with a prompt. Then he required each student to respond to other students’ comments in a way that added value to the thoughts being developed. He also asked them to connect their comments back to the original prompt, so that there would be some thematic linkage.
What a difference the prompts made. The subsequent interchanges were some of the best he had ever had. The students’ comments showed a depth of insight that Watson had not seen in many other discussions. The discussions were also more coherent, with contributions better linked to one another, rather than just being a hodgepodge of statements.
Discussions can often be enhanced by prompts provided by the instructor. Those prompts and the directions given for the discussion are keys to deeper, more insightful discussions. Generally, a discussion can benefit from 2-3 prompts as the discussion unfolds. The instructor or facilitator will need to inject these new prompts at the moment in the discussion when the input from the current prompt seems to have run its course or has achieved a desired range of insights.
Well-crafted discussion prompts work for both in-person and remote discussions. They work for synchronous and asynchronous online discussions. No matter the format for the discussion, the instructor or facilitator will need to carefully follow the discussion to assess the appropriate moment for a new discussion prompt.
Discussion prompts work best when they are reflective and non-binary in nature (taking care to avoid yes/no questions and questions that focus on recall). Examples for framing such prompts include:
- Suppose we imagine that…?
- What if…?
- Why might … be true in this case?
- Could it be that…? What reasons might there be to think that?
- How might different people view…?
- What might be other interpretations of…?
Each discussion will have different prompts. The follow-up prompts may need to be created in the moment—depending on how the discussion is unfolding.
Think of a time when you were in a highly productive discussion. What prompts (if any) were used? What strategies might you use to ensure that students respond to the prompts? What approach might you use for evaluating the effectiveness of a specific prompt? And how might we help students learn to craft their own discussion prompts, to better facilitate their own productive discussions? You’ll find some practical guidance to help students craft their own prompts in IF’s Facilitation Workbook.
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If a teacher does not involve himself, his values, his commitments, in the course of discussion, why should the students? – Paul Wellstone (former U.S. Senator, academic, and author)
This post is part of our “Think About” education series. These posts are based on composites of real-world experiences, with some details changed for the sake of anonymity. New posts appear Wednesday afternoons.