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Discussion forums are ubiquitous in online education despite getting mixed reviews from students and teachers. Faculty complain of students giving only perfunctory responses, while students lament discussion questions that allow only cursory answers.

The problem is the prompt is often written in language requesting a mini-academic paper or a yes-no answer rather than a real discussion. Crafting a good discussion question is tricky, but one option is to move beyond the traditional text prompt by using media such as images, videos, and podcasts. Media capture our attention in ways that text cannot. A video clip of Neil Armstrong taking his first moonwalk can accompany a short prompt about the end of the Space Race. Dorothea Lange’s 1936 photo of a hungry mother with children during the Great Depression can drive a discussion on economics. Video and audio prompts can elicit ideas that might not have come to students with a text prompt. An instructor might also post multiple images on a topic to suggest different perspectives to get students thinking more broadly, such as multiple depictions of civil rights protests by athletes throughout the 20th century.

Natural discussion happens over the last movie we saw, a new podcast we heard, or an interesting piece of news. Consider having these be the basis of online or in-class discussions too. The prompt can be a short video clip, a portion of an audio broadcast, a news story, a blog entry, an opinion piece, or even a picture. Design your discussion prompts to spark interest by having open-ended questions or ask for an interpretation of the piece.

These alternative types of prompts work best when you are trying to elicit conversation, engage students, and open broader understanding, not when you want a correct answer. Use these prompts to teach divergent thinking to encourage creativity. By the time students get to college, divergent thinking becomes secondary to getting the answer correct. But divergent thinking is key to maintaining and fostering creativity. And we all know that creativity sparks innovation. As Stacy Goodman (2015) writes, “Divergent thinking strategies offer the possibility of doing more than fostering a creative classroom environment—they can also help us better understand and appreciate difference in all areas of our students’ lives.” Alternative prompts may foster thinking from students who traditionally don’t answer the written discussion question.

Research has shown that students broaden their responses when expected to consider “multiple-perspectives, challenge assumptions, state their own predictions, and negotiate new understandings” (Williams et al., 2015). Using novel discussion prompts can encourage students to discuss almost any subject. But how you respond to the initial post matters too. Post your responses to further elicit deeper thought using second-level questions. That is, question your students’ initial posts to draw out further discussion. Model the type of behavior you expect in responses. Encourage others to question responses and offer differing opinions. If needed, stay with this topic before proceeding to new discussion posts.

Here are some fun examples to try in a variety of classes. Sometimes, the more obscure the prompt, the better the conversation.

To breed creativity in your classroom, be prepared to put in a few nontraditional discussion prompts. Expect answers to vary greatly and allow that there may not be an exact right or wrong answer. But teach the students to investigate and question why and what it means to them. Explore using audio and video for both prompts and feedback to prompts.


Goodman, S. (2015, August 12). Fuel creativity in the classroom with divergent thinking. Edutopia.

Williams, S. S., Jaramillo, A., & Pesko, J. C. (2015). Improving depth of thinking in online discussion boards. The Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 16(3), 45–66.

Katherine Senko, EdD, is an instructional designer at Pittsburgh Technical College. She has taught both in the classroom and online in high school, college, and corporate environments.