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The Learning Blend

This post is the third in a series on discussion prompts. It should stand alone, but you can also click here to start from the beginning.

In my last post, I looked at the value of making your discussion prompts open-ended. However, that alone is not sufficient to make a good discussion. We’ve all had that student who can connect anything to irrelevant personal experiences. The student, if allowed to continue down this road, is making connections, but is probably not engaging in much higher-order thinking.

The Verb is the Word

So, how do we encourage higher-order thinking through discussion prompts? The key is remembering that higher-order thinking exists in service to doing things, and doing things is signified by verbs, and (you may have forgotten since your undergraduate days) we have a list of verbs related to higher-order thinking.

If you’re telling your students to design, criticize, evaluate, compare, etc., they’re probably engaging in higher-order thinking. If you’re telling them to list, name, choose, it’s a little less likely (though not right out). To write prompts that challenge higher order thinking, it can be helpful to look at these keywords and affix your content as the object of these verbs, i.e. change legislation, explain energy use, evaluate a floor plan (angles), or predict plot.

Here are some example prompts that challenge higher-order thinking.

Example Prompts

If you were a senator, how would you change the laws of the United States? How would you justify those changes? Read your peers’ posts, and reply to a post by evaluating that student’s proposed changes.

Elementary Science
Explain a way your family could reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. Then, read some other posts and choose some ideas that would also work for your family. Use these ideas when you plan your greenhouse gas reduction strategy in the next lesson.

Lightning Bolt!

Using these keywords is easy and fun when you combine them with role playing, which we know to be a great way to show the value of class content and have fun. Now, I’m not talking about pretending to cast spells around a kitchen table, but, rather, playing the roles of contributing, creative members of society (not that the two things are mutually exclusive).

"I'll have you know that casting spells has contributed a great deal to society!"

Source: The Story of King Arthur and His Knights. (Public Domain)

So, to write fun prompts challenging higher-order thinking skills, just do the following:

  • Imagine an interesting person for whom your content is useful or a general situation in which it's useful.
  • Describe a task for that person or situation that uses verbs from the application, analysis, synthesis, or evaluation levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Example Prompts


(Assign each student an appropriate angle in advance of this activity. Some should be practical and others impractical)

Imagine you are an architect designing a floor plan for an eccentric client. The client has asked you to build a house in which all of the walls meet at angles equal to your assigned angle. Evaluate the practicality of this plan and explain your conclusion to your client. Once you are finished making your post, imagine that you are a classmate’s client and respond to his or her post by defending your request (if appropriate) or agreeing with your partner’s post.

"What do you mean impractical!?"

Source: The Cool Hunter


(This prompt is part of a Beowulf unit, but could probably work for any heroic epic.)

Imagine that you are a VSPN (Viking Sports Network) blogger covering the fight between Beowulf and Grendel. Before you read about their battle, predict who will win based on the text’s description of the combatants’ capabilities. Support your stance using three examples from the text with citations. Then, read your peers’ posts. Respond to a peer by imagining that you are a fan who disagrees with his or her prediction. Support your stance with three examples from the text with citations.

"I didn't know they had Wingdings in Medieval England..."

Source: Beowulf Manuscript (Public Domain)

Click here to read the last post in the series.


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Comment by Todd Silvius on March 5, 2012 at 2:25pm

Dan, I was thrilled to see your post come through today.

It is great to help us teachers reach back to our undergrad days to tap our inner "art-of-questioning" abilities asking questions that really reach inside of students' minds and tap those edu-desired application/synthesis level questionings (or for my QCSD peeps and others out there who are using Webb's Depth of Knowledge, Extended Thinking levels.)

Online learning can provide that ever-elusive instructional opportunity for teachers to tap these more meaningful levels of student understanding because time is, let's just say more moot, online compared to a F2F learning environment that is bound by a daily bell schedule.  In cyber or blended learning environments students now have evening, weekend, snow-day, in-service days as opportunities to work and push their levels of understanding deeper and apply content to projects or real-life scenarios.  Teachers can ask these thought-intensive questions that require thought and exploring because they don't necessarily have to wrap things up before the bell rings.  Although a deeper-level question doesn't always positively correlate to more time intensity, one would certainly not want to rush a student through their individualized thought process to formatively or summatively assess their level of understanding.

Comment by Dan Lucas on March 6, 2012 at 8:10am

Todd, glad you enjoyed it!

Your point about online discussion's escaping time constraints is great. Often, face to face conversation is dominated by the brightest or most outgoing students while others haven't really been able to work up to the deeper thinking going on. Online discussion can put those students who require more warm-up time on more equal footing with the faster students. This means more perspectives for everyone. A win-win.

Comment by Todd Silvius on March 6, 2012 at 1:14pm

And the great thing about the >application-based questions that you're encouraging teachers to use in your post Dana allows for

  • student choice (a powerful brain-friendly strategy) in determining how they will apply/synthesize their foundational knowledge (
  • allows for student individuality
  • let's teachers peek inside of the kids' heads to see how they are piecing together the knowledge to make sense of it and if the students are piecing their knowledge together correctly.
  • plus, this method of questioning safe-guards online assessments from students trying to cheat without necessarily needing a SafeAssign tool to compare student work.

As I'm reading about your pedagogical angle to questioning Dan, I'm seeing how it relates directly to how I have tried helping our online teachers phrase questions appropriately for other reasons also:  safe-guarding/securing  assessments from cheating in an online learning environment over the past few years of our cyber program.

A year or two ago a teacher approached me and stated that they learned of students cheating in their online class on the formative and summative assessments and how .  As I looked through the assessments that were being asked of the students, they were low DOK (recall-level) questions and that's it.  There were no questions that pushed the students to think to the next step of "WHY we're solving for x in the first place" or that asked the students if they could create a scenario where solving for x can help out a designer, engineer, architect, etc.  The majority of the questions simply stopped at "solve for x" (or em>insert low DOK/Bloom tax. equivalent questioning for your subject here>) and the assessment inadvertently created an opportunity for students to answer-swap easily.  This obviously was not the intention of the assessment, but the students aren't the only ones at fault.  The lack of carefully crafted questions that stimulate deeper thinking for the final answer also played a role in this unfortunate scenario.

In this scenario as teachers we know that minimal (at best) learning has taken place -- a copy/paste job from an answer generator... but only the answer generator/engine has proven that it can actually solve for x--the student proved only that he/she knows how to copy/paste from one source to another.  And in a target audience of grade school students where many students are still growing to become mature, responsible learners, there is a huge percentage of students who might think running that "solve-for-x" equation through WolframAlpha or Google is a good enough assessment especially in an online learning environment.  This obviously was not the intended focus of this particular assessment.

But how do we foster a learning environment in which teachers combat the perceived "evil" forces of answer generators, students looking to answer-swap and the like?  In an online learning environment we obviously don't want to "ban" the use of technology and instead want to foster responsible use of it to stimulate learning.  So we have to re-think how to ask questions that allow technology to assist/help, not complete the final answer.

So using the same math example in a traditional grading environment that many of our consortium districts still use: what if that question were now thought of as a 10 point question.

1 point goes for actually solving for
9 points go to how the student can apply it to how they do one or more of

  • evaluating in their own words,
  • putting together this with another question and explaining how their relationship applies to...
  • applying the information to create...
    • their own skate park proposal
    • hiking trail in the area of the park allocated by the township
    • a floor of an office space being leased by their boss etc etc
    • </</body>
Comment by Todd Silvius on March 6, 2012 at 1:15pm

<looks like I got cut off here; continued below>

Another example might be in social studies. Students can be encouraged to
1 point - look up the dates of Washington's birth/death

4 points - provide examples of the political struggles of the time/world Washington was born into

5 points - out of his decisions as general or president pick one and hypothesize how society might be different today had Washington not chosen to act the way he did.

Helping the students to think past the easily-searchable 1 point and 4 point level above and stretching to the 5 point hypothesis question type arguably

  • helps the teachers explore what they might really want to know about the student's learning;
  • taps a higher level of questioning by hypothesizing and exploring the hypothetical;
  • helps the teacher clearly see when two identical and/or even suspiciously-related 5-pointers are submitted.

Should that last bullet occur the teacher can decide to investigate into the extent of "student collaboration" etc etc, but if online assessment questions reached this level of assessment for the majority of questions asked of students online what a TERRIFIC vehicle the teacher now has at their disposal to more thoroughly explore student learning.

Assessment-paradigm-busting can sometimes be a difficult transitional process.  It is different, it is progressive, and it takes LOTS of time not only to craft a clever question but then to grade the answers -- this isn't a self-grading TestTool question type I'm thinking about either.  It is a pedagogical investment in instruction and assessment that pays off with dividends of individualized answers from each student who can think their way through their understanding while giving the peace-of-mind of protecting the assessment longevity and integrity from those students who are still learning the value of and education. 

I'm definitely not an expert in social studies, math or any subject outside of my cert -- in fact my certification is K-12 Music -- but I do think that as teachers we need to accept the challenge of looking at our curriculum and assessment online differently than how we look at it F2F.  We also can remember that online can help us as teachers feel more liberated to explore our curriculum and students' learning even more instead of feeling like we're restricted by doing it only one way.  I think that as teachers it is also important for teachers to re-examine what and how we teach through different facets or a by exploring a different instructional route (even if it's a scenic route) so that we never "arrive" and constantly look at our teacher reflection for professional self-assessment.  Lastly, staying open-minded in our approach to assessment is KEY to remembering that there are so many different strategies when it comes to assessing students; finding the way that

  • aligns with your district's/programs goals,
  • assesses the learning that it is intended to assess,
  • phrases questions that both stimulate higher level thinking and discourage cheating

are critical and our responsibilities as educators especially in an online learning environment.

Comment by Dan Lucas on March 7, 2012 at 1:22pm

Well said, Todd! Stopping cheating is another great element of good discussion/assessment prompts. The thing I've said is, "If I can find the answer to your assessment with a Google search on my phone, the problem is not my phone, but your assessment." These sorts of prompts are much more difficult to cheat or bluff on, and they engage students in higher-order thinking. Win-win!

Comment by Joanne Beckjord on November 8, 2012 at 12:58pm

Your conversation reminds me of an assignment that I used so long ago that we were just at the beginning of accessing information online.  It was a creative writing assignment in which students had the opportunity to nominate a hero-type of person for a commemorative stamp.  I'd contacted the P.O. for the actual procedure to nominate someone, and the first step was to write a letter to the post master outlining the person's worthwhile and honorable attributes which would make him eligible for this honor.  I thought it was a great idea!  I thought it would be so meaningful to the students! I thought it would lead to great discussion on what makes a person worthy of a commemorative stamp!  What I received was every sort of imaginable cut and paste job off of the internet about such memorable and worthy characters as Michael Jordon, Janet Jackson, Scotty Pippen (I'm old), etc.  Then I thought of a way to remedy this cheating.  The next year, they still had the nominating assignment, but this time they had to nominate a CONCEPT -- eg., hope, honor, justice, freedom, etc.  They could include a definition, but they had to give 2 examples of the concept in action -- one example from history or current affairs and one from a personal experience.

I received excellent (some a bit weird. . .) nominations! 

Maybe if the assignment is valid, you can always alter it to make it more personal and therefore, less able to cheat on it?  Hopefully.

Comment by Dan Lucas on November 9, 2012 at 5:36pm

What a great idea, Joanne! A little twist can go a long way in making an assignment fresh and new for students, with the side benefit of making plagiarism difficult. Your story would make a great blog post!


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