If you’ve been a learner, designer or facilitator on an online course, you’ve probably seen discussions like this:

In this course we've been looking at infectious diseases. There have been many in the course of human history that have affected local and global communities. Share your thoughts on plagues, epidemics and pandemics in the discussion below.

After your initial post, reply to at least two other learners.

Post once, reply twice. But this just doesn't work. Or rather, learners might follow that instruction… but what you get is far from a thrilling discussion. Instead, you’ll end up with posts like this.

Thanks Jane I really like your comment about viruses and agree that they're not good.

We had a stomach bug go around our entire school too Tiaki! Not quite an epidemic, but infectious nonetheless.

No one benefits from this. Not the learners, not the facilitator, not even the learners' assignment grades. Any learning is lost in a sea of useless platitudes.

So, what can we do instead?

Ask the right question

Some people say that for a worthwhile discussion you need an open-ended question. A question with multiple "right" answers, that requires many options and creativity. For instance...

If [historical event] took place today, what might that be like?

That is certainly an improvement on the plagues question above. But we would argue there's more to it than a question being open or closed. Some questions can be seeking a single "right" answer and make for a great discussion if they require some sort of qualification, evaluation or consensus from the group. For instance…

Which approach is the best approach to solve this particular math problem?

This question would be more likely to require learners to explain, justify and negotiate to arrive at "best". We suggest not to worry too much about focusing on divergent, convergent, open or closed. Instead try to play out some answers to the question and look for hooks into conversation. Are there opportunities for learners to...

  • Strongly or even slightly disagree with one another?
  • Find commonalities in their experiences or opinions?
  • Add a different perspective to someone else’s experience or opinion?

If you can answer yes to these questions, you’ve probably got the basis of a good discussion prompt.

Let’s take a look at some examples.

Joe is looking at purchasing a car on hire purchase. Which of the options [described in content] would work out best for Joe?

In this example, one finance option is probably better than the other. So, when the first learner has said which option Joe should go with and why, there's not much more for others to say.

Share your experience of change management in a workplace. In your opinion, how well was the change managed?

In the example of sharing stories of change management. Each person's experience is probably unique to them. While this can still be great from a learning point of view (seeing many different implementations of change management) it might not necessarily lead to a discussion. If you add on to this prompt to ask learners to identify commonalities or differences, this might then lead to a bit more back and forth.

Aim for quality not quantity

Aim for conversation and collaboration. And tell your learners this is what they should be aiming for. Don’t leave it implicit.

Rather than set a certain number of posts for this discussion, you might give learners these guidelines:

We value constructive conversation and collaboration.

Think about how a conversation unfolds naturally. One person says something, someone else responds, another asks a question... Rather than a formula to be followed, people hear each other, take a genuine interest, and respond to the ideas being shared. That's what we hope you'll practice in our discussions.

You might respond to someone else by agreeing or disagreeing (kindly). You might raise questions, or answer them. What's important is that you carry the conversation forward, interact, and learn from each other.

If your learners are well-versed in discussions, this might be all the explanation they need. If your learners are newer to it, they'll likely need more support. We’ve put together this guide to help learners craft constructive comments that carry the discussion forward.

Check out the full discussion prompts for learners by downloading the file below.

Make discussion necessary

By following the two suggestions above,  you’ll be well on your way to more constructive and engaging discussions. But… Engagement in online discussions will almost always be lower if learners don't actually need to discuss in order to learn the thing or complete a task.

For instance, for this prompt:

In the video/reading we learned about [x]. Tell us a story: where have you seen [x] in your own life?

Learners will probably benefit from being exposed to a range of others’ experiences, sure. But… they don’t actually need to talk to one another with this prompt alone.

Here’s a few discussion tasks that would actually require discussion.

Recommendations on an issue

If you were to make recommendations on [concept/issue] what would they be? As a group we'll be agreeing on the [x] most crucial recommendations.

Issues get learners thinking about the topic from multiple viewpoints which broadens their understanding. And, in asking the group to identify the most crucial recommendations, they'll be comparing, contrasting and negotiating.

Part one: Come up with as many viable [ideas/applications/solutions/objects] relating to [x] and share them in your group.

Part two: As a group, discuss how you could sort your ideas into similar categories and come up with labels for your categories.

This discussion asks learners to diverge for idea generation, then converge to group them. This is a technique often used in design thinking.

If there are multiple small groups, it can also be an added exercise to compare and contrast the categories and ideas that different groups have come up with.

Adopt a different viewpoint

Part one: Choose a key [figure/theorist] in our field and research their background and view points.

Part two: Post a short bio on your key [figure/theorist].

Part three: Take a look at other's bios and come up with an interview question.

Part four: Respond to the questions you've been asked by your peers and respond as if you were that figure/theorist being interviewed.

This helps learners adopt a viewpoint (that may be different from their own) and is somewhat like a "jigsaw" activity where each person/group has one piece of information and the rest of the class need to ask smart questions to find out more about that figure/theorist.

This kind of approach is especially useful when looking at how the cultural context of a figure/theorist might help explain their position.

You could also alter the above to use a key concept or model and explore how different professions - doctor, lawyer, politician or teacher etc. - would apply it.


To get the discussion you (and your learners) really want:

  • Ask questions which learners will have different opinions and perspectives on (or have interesting themes in similarities).
  • Support your learners to have conversations with guidelines or discussion prompts.
  • Set tasks where learners have to actually talk to one another to get the job done.

If you're wondering how you can implement this in your course, check out our knowledgebase articles with more on talk channels and in-page discussions.