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What Can You learn from Discussion Board Open-Ended Questions?

What can you learn from discussion board open-ended questions?

As an online instructor, you miss the automatic feedback that comes from watching your students’ expressions and body language as you teach. One way to pull that kind of feedback from online learners is to use well-written discussion board open-ended questions.

We know that discussion board introductions are valuable for getting to know your learners and them getting to know each other. And the information you get from a thoughtful introductions helps you move that iteration of the course in the right direction for those students. If you want to learn more about the value of discussion board introductions you can watch the YouTube video or listen to the podcast.

Design the Right open-ended Questions

Open-ended questions are questions that can’t be answered with a one-word answer, like yes, no, or maybe. If you’ve ever raised teenagers, you know that “How was your day?” is a very closed question. The answer is usually “Fine” or “Good” or “Eh”. That doesn’t give you much to go on. But if you change the question to something like, “Tell me about your day” you might get a more interesting answer.

A discussion board question that asks, “Did you agree with the author on…” is a closed question. Learners can answer yes or no and then be done. That’s probably not what you were going for.

You can tweak the question a little and ask “Did you agree with the author on…? Why or why not?” and that makes it a bit more open-ended. But you’re still giving a narrow question. You’re asking if they agree or disagree. There’s not much wiggle room in there.

An alternative could be “Not everyone shares this author’s opinion. Find a quote from the article that people might disagree on and explain why you think it would be controversial. If you share whether you agree or disagree, be sure to explain why.”

Why Use Open-Ended Questions

Why even use open-ended questions if they require so much thought? Isn’t a yes or no enough to give you what you need?


That wasn’t a helpful answer, was it? Let me try again.

Student responses to open-ended questions are a window into their thinking. Consider the example question above about agreeing or disagreeing with the author.

A student could answer, “… I picked this quote because I know how important _______ is to me and to my family. I went to school with someone who didn’t care about it at all. It was really hard to understand how he couldn’t care about it. How can anyone not care!? I’ve struggled with trying to see other people’s perspectives when they are so different from mine.”

This response shows that the student struggles with seeing things from other points of view and that could affect how the student applies the learning. I would file that away as a tidbit about that student. My brain would start thinking about learning activities I could use to give students practice on shifting perspective. I could also make sure to use examples from multiple perspectives to model the shift.

If I had used the question “Did you agree with the author on…? Why or why not?” the student might have answered, “I agree because it’s the right way to do it.”

That leaves me with more questions about the student rather than insight.

Your Turn

The activity for this week is to write two open-ended discussion board questions that you might use in a course you are creating or hope to create. It can be a multi-part question.

Community Conversation

Then choose one of the questions to share in the comments of the companion YouTube video. Explain why you chose to ask that question and what information you hope to glean out of it about your learners or their misconceptions.

Want more?

If you’re just getting started creating your online course, check out How To Write Goals, Objectives, And Outcomes For Your Online Course

If you want to know more about learning activities in general, read Why Are Learning Activities Important?

Download my free ebook Online Course Creation Made Easy: 25 Activities to Engage Your Online Learners.

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