by Pathwright
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How to Write Discussion Questions

Written by

Christian Shockley

on September 8, 2018

Online studies should be more than just an attractive way to convey information—learning is more than just relaying facts. It’s about relationships that build frameworks for information. Whether you're teaching a Sunday school class, a book study, or a homeschool group, asking useful discussion questions will help your study group in three key ways:

  1. To build community
  2. To learn through explaining things themselves
  3. To synthesize what they’ve learned with their experience

Below you’ll find four tips to help you write questions that accomplish these goals:

1. Ask Open-Ended Questions

Strong open-ended questions guide our thoughts without expecting specific answers. Asking an open-ended question is like fencing in a pasture—a farmer wants his cattle to have plenty of grass on which to feed, but he doesn’t want any of them going too far off on their own. The right discussion question will push your group in a helpful direction without giving them too much room to follow unhelpful tangents. Let’s imagine what open-ended questions about this blog post would sound like:

Weaker open-ended question:

What’s one thing that you found really helpful from our discussion about open-ended questions? (Too broad.)

Better open-ended question:

How do you think your specific subject material will shape how you write open-ended questions? (Helps the group members apply information to their own context)

Weaker open-ended question:

What are some important things to remember when you’re writing open-ended questions? (Expects regurgitation of what’s been discussed, doesn’t push group members for original thoughts)

Better open-ended question:

How can open-ended questions in early lessons prepare your group for what you want to teach them later in the course? (Pushes group members to consider specific benefits we didn’t discuss)

2. Think about Community

Even if you write the perfect open-ended question (broad enough to be challenging without being so broad it’s unhelpful), expect to see a wide array of answers. Your group members will combine what you’ve taught them with their own experience to bring something original into the conversation. That’s discussion’s superpower—each learner becomes a teacher, and each benefits from the experience of others.

The community aspect of discussion groups will also provide more (and better) feedback. Feedback from peers not only helps each member benefit from someone else’s ideas, but it applies positive pressure to the learning process. No one wants to come to a discussion empty-handed, knowing that their peers will be watching, so they’ll put more time into answering a question well.

As you write discussion questions, consider asking yourself: “Does this question allow room for everyone to add their own experience to the discussion?” Try following that up with: “Does this question motivate everyone to give a thoughtful response?”

3. More Questions = More Participation

Offering more than one question to answer — providing some that are very accessible, others that are more challenging — will draw in more people to participate. Many of your church or small group members won’t be used to online discussion. And others will squirm at the thought of having to share in front of others. For these, easily accessible questions will become a training ground for healthy discussion. These easier questions will familiarize them with what it’s like to discuss and get feedback. Again, let’s imagine an accessible question we might ask if we were teaching this blog post:

Easily accessible:

How have discussion questions helped you learn in the past? (Simply focuses on their personal experience while drawing out information about the subject.)

4. Offer Incentive (Grade the Discussion)

It’d be difficult to grade every discussion post (much less the feedback on those posts). And, if you’re asking the right kind of discussion questions, there shouldn’t be a “right answer” to grade. But offering points for participation will usually draw in the stragglers.

Participation points may seem a little too pragmatic at first. After all, we want our group members to want to discuss, right? But no one learns to swim without getting in the water, and some of us need a little push off the edge of the swimming pool. Giving out points will get everyone involved, and once they're in the discussion, they just might find that it’s really helpful.

Helpful discussion questions take time to write. The process isn’t easy, though it gets easier with practice. But when you’ve mastered it, your online group study will have more depth and feel more like a community—not just a book or worksheet. People will begin to engage with what you teach and with everyone else in the group. You’ll build a community of people prepared to apply what they know.

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