Writing Engaging Discussion Questions
Discussion boards are the equivalent of classroom discussions (Dereshiwsky, 2015), but afford additional opportunities for both formative and summative assessments as well as direct teaching. Possibly their best advantage over classroom discussion is that discussion boards eliminate the psychosocial aspects that favor articulate students who can think fast on their feet and disfavor those who are more reflective. Another drawback of classroom discussions is that not all students can voice their opinions for various reasons—they are shy or unprepared or prefer to reflect before stating their views. Or they disagree with what has been presented, yet are reticent to speak up. Some simply have nothing to add. Thus, classroom discussions often reflect somewhat of a groupthink.
In the online environment, a certain anonymity prevails. The visual and aural cues of smiles, eye rolling, chuckling, or sighing in response to a comment or opinion expressed are absent. Brookfield and Preskill (2005) note that students more readily share their own carefully thought-out perspective in online discussions even if they reflect an opposing view, which often makes for an interesting and engaging discussion. In addition, online discussions allow students the time to reflect upon the question, which is beneficial as participation is required and points are at stake. This opportunity to reflect fosters less pressure to conform to the groupthink, resulting in individual intellectual development and a wider range of perspectives to be considered for coconstruction of knowledge.
In this chapter, we discuss the value of online small group discussions and how to develop engaging discussion questions (DQs). This chapter walks you through the process of designing engaging DQs from an outcome-based approach. Examples of DQs are provided to give you an idea of what is possible.
158ANATOMY OF A DQ
Given the variety of content in online RN to bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) and graduate nursing courses, writing a step-by-step process for faculty to follow when creating DQs that is specific enough to be useful seems to be without precedent. However, several concepts, models, theories, and sound suggestions from scholars can guide us, notably the recommendations from Benner, Sutphen, Leonard, and Day (1984/2010) to situate what we want students to learn within a context similar to how they will encounter that content in the role they aspire to. In addition, research on and decades of experience with problem-based learning (PBL) and identified characteristics of engaging DQs are also useful.
Content: Characteristics of Authentic Problems
The work of Barrows and Kelson (1996) on creating authentic cases for PBL can inform the creation of engaging DQs as well.
1. Format: Ill structured and messy
2. Initial information: Inadequate information is provided initially to solve the problem. Additional discourse and research are needed.
3. Educational resources: Students must engage in independent research and evaluate the reliability and value of resources they use.
To their list, I would add the following characteristics of authentic problems. DQs should:
• Evoke emotions: Recent research on memory and emotion indicates that we remember what we care about (Nairne, 2010, as cited in Miller, 2014). Starting a discussion with a video of the patient or situation involved in the problem or issue can serve to involve the area of the brain, the amygdala, where emotions arise. The more real the topic, the more involved students will become, and the more they will learn.
• Be challenging: DQs should be written at such a level that students will not become frustrated in composing an answer. They should be written slightly above the student’s capability, but within their zone of proximal development (see Chapter 2). The challenge occurs naturally when they cannot paraphrase directly from the readings, but instead must analyze, synthesize, or evaluate what they have read in order to apply the information to the issue at hand.
• Promote and require active learning: Increasing student engagement is, in my experience, related to how relevant students feel the exercise is 159to their future role. Perceived relevance results in students taking a more active role in their learning.
• Promote higher order cognitive processing: Having high expectations of students is important, as they will rise to meet these expectations. Students who will be taking online courses are already nurses who have a professional goal. I do believe they want to be challenged, but in a supportive environment where feedback helps them learn.
• Not have one correct answer: Some answers will be better than others, but students should not be able to open their text and find the answer. Fact-based questions increase cognitive load as students struggle to find something new that a classmate has not already said. This is not conducive to learning.
• Be clearly worded: If students cannot understand what is being asked or if the intent of the question is unclear, students will struggle with their response, become frustrated, and lose engagement with the problem.
Ross (1997) offers recommendations for problem selection based on experience using problems to teach. From his perspective, the problem can be selected:
• To ensure that students cover a predefined area of knowledge
• To help students learn a set of important concepts, ideas, techniques
• For its suitability for leading students to (parts of) the “field”
• For its intrinsic interest or importance
• Because it represents a typical problem faced by the profession (pp. 30–31)
Note that in the first bullet point the pesky word cover surfaces again. I would prefer to replace the word cover with uncover, which, according to Wiggins and McTighe (2005), “suggests finding something important in what had become hidden” (p. 230). That is truly what we want students to do. We want them to recall what they already know, think of themselves as detectives, and search out the relevant information needed to answer the questions posed. These recommendations align with the call for transformation of nursing education that you will recall include learning within context, integration of knowing and doing, and using the thought processes necessary for the role.
When talking about online discussions, Brookfield and Preskill wrote (2005):
Discussion is not particularly effective for disclosing new facts or for arguing over something that can be checked out by consulting an almanac or dictionary. Discussion is ideal, however, for exploring complex ideas and 160entertaining multiple perspectives. It is almost never suitable for reaching definitive solutions or putting forward a single, indisputable answer. (p. 236)
When writing DQs, as faculty we know what it is we want students to learn from a question. We could tell them in a lecture what they need to learn. However, research (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 1999) has shown that lecturing supports surface learning (Chapter 1) that is quickly forgotten because information is presented without context. Our goal is to present an authentic problem or issue embedded within a context that students will recognize in order to uncover the essence of what is to be learned. We want to support development of “habits of thought” that will serve them throughout their careers.
A word of caution is in order when beginning to consider content for your course. The process of DQ development for nonclinical courses requires a specific focus due to the breadth of content available that can seemingly push faculty toward teaching habits that are undesirable from a constructivist, learner-centered perspective. What I am referring to is the idea faculty sometimes have that they must teach everything there is to know about a topic in one course. This is counterproductive.
Recall from the work of Wiggins and McTighe (2005) that coverage is not the best approach, and is in fact considered one of the “twin sins” of instructional design. As faculty, we must face reality and understand that if our students are to learn anything, not everything about the topic can be taught (Locher, 2004). Bransford et al. (1999) explained this phenomenon: “curricula that emphasize breadth of knowledge may prevent effective organization of knowledge because there is not enough time to learn anything in depth” (p. 49). Sacrificing breadth of content so that students learn the essential content in a deep, as opposed to surface, manner (see Chapter 1) and learn for understanding (see Chapter 3) is the best approach. So, the key is to determine what content is essential for students to learn (must know) because it will be put to use in their future role. Separate that from content that is simply nice to know and content that, if taught, will quickly be forgotten as students will most likely not use it. So, the question is, What knowledge is essential for students to function effectively in their future role that must be learned from this course? Remember your new mantra: outcomes.
Thoughts on Context
From Benner and colleagues (1984/2010) comes the challenge to transform nursing education, which includes learning within an authentic context, 161integration of clinical and classroom teaching, and formation within the role that should be at the foundation of our approach to question development and teaching in general. DQs should be grounded in a context that reflects the professional role and affords practice in thinking like a professional nurse, nurse practitioner (NP), researcher, administrator, or educator. Tanner (2009) refers to this practice as developing habits of thought, which means “critically evaluating the evidence supporting alternative choices, reflecting on one’s reasoning processes and self-correcting, understanding patient’s experiences, identifying salient aspects of a situation, making clinical judgments in specific situations, and modifying one’s approach in light of the patient’s responses” (p. 299). Although this quote is obviously written from a clinical context, the type of thinking or habits of thought can be applied to nonclinical nursing roles as well.
From my experience, students, even with nursing experience, too readily take new information and data at face value without question or an attempt to seek validation. These habits of thought Tanner refers to are best developed through guided problem-solving practice in a safe environment where students not only have feedback, coaching, and support from faculty, but also the opportunity to observe experienced faculty (and more experienced classmates) model the expert’s thought processes, which is akin to the experience of cognitive apprenticeship (Collins, Brown, & Newman, 1984); also see Chapter 2).
The Role of Context
Must all DQs include context? What is wrong with simply asking a question? Questions asked out of context may leave the student wondering, Why should I care about this? So what? Remember the tenets of andragogy that adults are independent learners who have accumulated rich life experiences who prefer to apply what they are learning to their changing social role (i.e., a new career) (Merriam, 2001). In addition, context helps add additional cues for retrieval. Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel (2014) made the point that:
How readily you can recall knowledge from your internal archives is determined by context, by recent use, and by the number and vividness of cues that you have linked to the knowledge and can call on to help bring it forth. (p. 76)
Because there is a mismatch between the vast amounts of data our brains can store compared to the finite ability to cue the memories, it makes sense to help provide a context whenever possible to help students retrieve the content when it is needed in their new roles. Keep in mind that most, if not all, questions aimed to satisfy learning outcomes could be presented within context, even questions on statistics, statistical methods, and concepts related 162to research. What is required is a bit of imagination and creativity. Asking yourself, Why does the student need to know this?, may help uncover an appropriate context.
FOCUSING ON OUTCOMES
From the Backward Design process, I hope your new mantra is outcomes and that the question you ask yourselves when planning instruction is: What are the desired learning outcomes? This is the place to begin when writing DQs. A look at the objectives for the course is the best place to start, paying particular attention to the domain and level of verb used. If the objectives are broadly written, they may not provide enough information to drill down to the actual DQs. A task analysis of the objective as discussed in Chapter 8 may help you understand the particular knowledge, skills, and attitudes that students must learn in your course. The steps of a task analysis used to determine the knowledge and skills necessary to meet an objective are listed in Box 7.1.
Perhaps an example will help. In the Online Methodologies course I taught, one of the content areas was facilitating online discussions. Students read about the theory and strategies of facilitation, but my goal was for each of them to actually facilitate a discussion. The objective for the course related to this content was: At the end of the course, students will be able to successfully demonstrate effective facilitation strategies. This objective is written in the cognitive domain, application level. One of my perspectives on teaching is that I want to combine knowing and doing whenever possible in order to make the content become real for the student.
STEPS OF A TASK ANALYSIS OF AN OBJECTIVE
1. Determine the domain of the objective (cognitive, psychomotor, or affective).
2. Determine the level of performance desired (measurable verb in the objective).
3. Make a list of knowledge, skills, and attitudes (abilities) necessary to meet the objective. Questions to help with this step are:
a. How will this content reveal itself to solve problems?
b. What are common problems students might later encounter that are related to this content?
c. What is the context in which these problems might occur?
d. What prerequisite knowledge, skills, and attitudes should be brought to mind to help them build mental models?
4. Identify an authentic problem and situation (context) that would require the application of the identified abilities.
163To assess this objective, I planned to have each student facilitate one discussion in the course. I set up a discussion board for the leaders of each discussion—one from each group—to work on and to ultimately write the DQ that all groups would tackle for their assigned module. I lurked in the background of these decision-making discussions and provided guidance when necessary. What I wanted students to experience when they facilitated a discussion was keeping the discussion going, using various facilitative techniques to support learning, such as providing encouragement, requesting clarification, Socratic questioning, metacognitive questioning, and so on (all included in Chapter 11). Thus, the actual question they created was about the topic for the module. For this example, I will use the topic of teaching with cases.
The objective: At the end of the course, students will be able to successfully demonstrate effective facilitation strategies.
• Domain: Cognitive
• Level of performance: Application
• Knowledge, skills, and attitudes
Content knowledge of the topic at hand, teaching with cases, and knowledge of facilitation strategies.
The skill of successfully using these strategies (being able to apply them) by choosing the right words to promote participation and move the discussion forward.
To portray a supportive attitude for their “learners.”
To recognize what is occurring in the discussion and in each student’s posts such as nonsubstantive posts, superficial response to classmates that reiterates rather than continues the discourse, or a series of monologues and not really a discussion and deal with them.
• Authentic problem: Having students lead a discussion of their peers on the authentic of teaching with cases.