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Planning for Engagement

Given University College Courses are 8 weeks, choose 2 of the following strategies that can be employed in your course. For each week, work with the Instructional Designer to provide the detailed prompts and plans for a detailed discussion. Alternatively, you can identify your own proven strategies for discussions in your course and provide the plan to your ID.

When creating a discussion, it's important to remember that it is the design which increases the chances for interaction and effectiveness. Instructors can evaluate their content to find the best "strategy match" for their desired outcomes.

The importance of Prompts

Discussion prompts. The selection of a discussion prompt is very important, as it structures and directs the activity of the learners. Discussion prompts that inherently guide students to progress through the phases of cognitive presence1 were more successful in eliciting integration and resolution. Problem-based, project-based, and debate prompts emerge as strategies that promoted higher levels of integration and resolution when compared to traditional question-and-answer structure.
  • Problem-based prompts. Problem-based prompts typically focus on a problem that is related to the content area and ask students to discuss and work together to formulate solutions. 

  • Project-based prompts. Similar to problem-based learning, project-based learning has students develop solutions to problems. However, students create concrete products or artifacts that engage them in solving the problem. 

  • Debate prompts. Debate is a widely researched strategy in the literature that frequently exhibits higher levels of cognitive presence (see Darabi et al., 2011; Kanuka, Rourke, & Laflamme, 2007; Nussbaum et al., 2007). In a typical discussion debate, students argue for or against a position, with the intention of persuading others to assume the same position. 

  • Challenging stance. A similar approach to questioning is for the instructor to take on a challenging stance in the discussion to further probe student thinking. For example, instructors may challenge students to defend their position, play "devil's advocate" by providing opposing evidence, highlighting different student opinions, or prompting students to consider alternate viewpoints (Gerber, Scott, Clements, & Sarama, 2005).

  • Peer facilitation. A strategy noted as effective in supporting an online community in the literature was to assign a peer facilitator. Concerning social presence2, students may be more comfortable to participate in the discussion when it is led by an equal member of the class, rather than the instructor who is perceived as the authority 

  • Protocol prompts. Protocols are a structured method of having discussions by establishing a well-defined goal, clear roles, set rules for interactions, and specific deadlines for posting. One example of a protocol is called Save the Last Word for Me, in which half the students find a quote from a complex reading, which requires further interpretation from the class. Then, everyone provides their interpretation of at least two quotes posted. At the end of the week, the initial posters of the quote explain what they learned from the discussion. Then, the roles reverse for the next reading. (For other examples of online protocols, see McDonald et al., 2012).

    • Roles in a Discussion Board - one version of a protocol prompt is the use of roles. A generic version of this might include Leader, Validator and Summarizer. When a question or discussion prompt is indicated by the Instructor, students are assigned a specific role in that conversation:
      • Leader - initiates the discussion, offers facts and opinions on the topic or proposes and answer to a question.
      • Validator - either agree or challenges (or both) with what is proposed by the leader of the discussion. The validator should cite the reading or other sources in order to disagree/agree
      • Summarizer - Restates the conversation with a summary conclusion. Could provide for the prompt in a subsequent conversation. (Roles can then be reversed).
      • Manager/Leader - coordinates the conversation, promotes participation, encourages contact
      • Content Manager - evaluates and structures the content being contributed
      • Knowledge Manager - Provides summaries, keep tracks of decisions.
Discipline Specific Roles

As subject matter experts, there may be certain roles that pertain to your content or area of expertise that are familiar to you. For example, in the subject area of History (Researcher, Analyzer, Fact-Checker, Narrator),

Finally, as the expert and intellectual leader, it's important for instructors to be able to strategize, plan and lead a discussion focused on the objectives you targeted for your class. Asking good questions, whether in a residential or online class, is at the heart of any good discussion. The Eberly Center at CMU offers the following:

Good questions are the key to a productive discussion. These include not only the questions you use to jump-start discussion but also the questions you use to probe for deeper analysis, ask for clarification or examples, explore implications, etc. It is helpful to think about the various kinds of questions you might ask and the cognitive skills they require to answer. Davis (1993) lists a range of question types, including:

  • Exploratory questions: probe facts and basic knowledge
  • Challenge questions: interrogate assumptions, conclusions or interpretations
  • Relational questions: ask for comparisons of themes, ideas, or issues
  • Diagnostic questions: probe motives or causes
  • Action questions: call for a conclusion or action
  • Cause-and-effect questions: ask for causal relationships between ideas, actions, or events
  • Extension questions: expand the discussion
  • Hypothetical questions: pose a change in the facts or issues
  • Priority questions: seek to identify the most important issue(s)
  • Summary questions: elicit synthesis


  1. Cognitive presence is defined as the extent to which learners are able to construct and confirm meaning through sustained discourse in a critical community of inquiry.”  (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2001).Another definition of cognitive presence combines community with concept growth. (site reference)
  2. Social presence is the ability to project oneself socially and affectively and getting to know each other as three-dimensional people despite not meeting face-to-face. Social presence is the foundation of building trust and presence for the teaching and learning experiences.(site reference)
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