How To Write Engaging Questions for Online Forums

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Online asynchronous discussions are often incorporated by faculty into blended or online courses, providing opportunities for rich dialog among students outside of the traditional face-to-face classroom environment. A number of steps can be taken to promote an engaging and interactive online discussion, beginning with drafting the discussion questions that students are asked to respond to. This infographic highlights a variety of suggestions that can yield more meaningful and deeper online discussions.

How to Compose Engaging Questions for Online Forums Infographic
Source: BangTheTable

What additional suggestions do you have for writing engaging questions for online discussion forums?  Feel free to leave a comment with your ideas!

Teaching for Student Retention

woman teaching classFinancial needs, family issues, and personal adjustment can impact student retention at universities across the nation. Moreover, academic factors such as curriculum design, teaching methods, and academic advising can have a considerable impact on why a student will or will not stay in a particular course, major, or the university. To help increase student retention, you can implement specific classroom techniques to engage students and intrinsically motivate them to stay in class. You can also design your courses to better help students retain course concepts and perform better on assessment activities. The following are some strategies you can use to address student retention.

Course Preparation
Preparing for a course from the perspective of student retention involves identifying the learning needs of your students. Recognizing students who may be at risk or struggling academically can help you develop strategies to help students succeed.

  • Get to know your students’ needs and potential academic challenges they may have by conducting a brief survey at the beginning of the semester. This survey can be conducted in Blackboard or by using index cards in which you ask students to provide responses to some basic questions: How many credit hours are you enrolled in this semester? Are you a transfer student? Is this your first semester at NIU? Other questions that can help you get a better feel for who your students are include those asking about students’ study habits, how they prefer to learn, their test taking strategies, and commitments such as work, family responsibilities, athletics, or if they commute to campus.
  • Prepare your course content in a variety of ways. Use Blackboard to post lectures, course notes, and study guides. Create or find open education resources to augment difficult course content such as video-taped lectures, simulations, and tutorials students can use to review outside of class.

Course Design Considerations
A number of strategies and models are available to help you design your course. There are certain aspects of course design, however, that require additional consideration from the perspective of teaching for student retention.

  • Design your course syllabus to include welcoming language and statements that motivate and encourage student success rather than focusing only on penalties for absences, late work submission, and plagiarism.
  • Review course pre-requisites, vocabulary, and concepts the first week of the semester to ensure all students begin at the same level. Assign homework on necessary topics to prepare students adequately for the course.
  • Make course assessments authentic. Students are more motivated to learn and do well when presented with course activities that relate to real world experiences. “Valuable” learning experiences are those which students can relate to and use when they enter the work world. Make assessments meaningful so both you and your students know that they have done well and performed like an expert in the field.
  • Ask for formative feedback from your students. Formative feedback helps students know how well they are doing and whether or not they are meeting course goals. Formative feedback can also inform you on your teaching. For example, at the end of a lecture or class period, give students a set of questions that ask them: What was the best part of today’s lecture? What was the muddiest point of today’s class? What could you do differently to help with your own learning in this class? Acting on the feedback you collect from students will tell them that you value their input and are willing to address any suggestions they might share.
  • Use success markers to track at-risk students. Examples of course success markers are class attendance, demonstration of comprehending particular concepts, timely submission of assignments, and performance in key course activities. Using Blackboard’s tracking feature, clickers (personal response systems), or other mechanisms can help simplify the tracking process. Students who are identified as not satisfying established success markers can meet with you during office hours where they can receive necessary advice and or assistance.

Course Delivery
Effective course delivery is dependent on positive communication, clarity in instructions, and patience in responding to students’ questions. Students may decide within the first few class periods whether or not to stay in a course based on their perceptions of and/or interactions with their instructors.

  • Create a positive learning environment by taking the time to learn students’ names and interact with them before, during, and after class.
  • Provide students the opportunity to interact in the classroom. Encourage students to engage in class discussions by welcoming them to share their ideas and experiences.
  • Convey your expertise and passion for teaching. Students will respond to your excitement and interest in the subject matter.
  • Draw connections between topics and point out the relevance of content to students and the real-world. Students are more likely to come to class and engage with content they fine meaningful, useful, and timely.
  • Deliver course content using a variety of means to accommodate the different learning preferences of your students. For example, use focused lectures to relay detailed course content, class discussion to recall readings and homework assignments, group work to encourage critical thinking and leadership skills, and technology to extend class time for online discussions, promote communication skills, and reviews.

Course Activities
Careful balancing of high-stakes and low-stakes course activities and designing course activities that allow multiple forms of expression can accommodate students with diverse skills and abilities. In-class, out-of-class, and online activities help to develop a sense of community, collaboration, and support among students, all which can enhance student retention.

  • Include class activities to give students the opportunity to apply what they are learning to real-life situations such as case studies, scenarios, and problem-based projects.
  • Be clear and concise when explaining how to complete assignments. If assignment directions are not clear, students may be less successful in completing activities.
  • Offer frequent quizzes and assignments to help students receive regular feedback on their course performance and recognize what to improve before major tests or exams.
  • Be patient when students ask questions about exams and grades. Recognize that students often ask these questions due to anxiety about succeeding in the course and the need to prioritize the time spent on multiple courses as well as outside responsibilities.
  • Encourage students to use support services such as the University Libraries, NIU Writing Center, and department- and college-level tutoring services to complete particular course activities. These facilities will help students receive additional assistance and become familiar with academic support services.

Much of what has been presented in this article is essential for learner-centered teaching. Through thoughtful course preparation, design, delivery, and course activities, you can address the learning needs of all students, which in turn can help to promote student retention.

In addition to the suggestions offered here, there are some features in Blackboard that can impact student success and retention by creating a stronger community in the classroom and identifying potential problems early. Learn more in our upcoming online workshop on September 19 from 12:00 PM to 1:00 PM, CST. NIU Faculty, Instructors, Staff, and Teaching Assistants can register here

Tips for Designing a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC)

Banner for Perspectives on Disability

This fall (2013), Northern Illinois University launched its first Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC, titled Perspectives on Disability and led by Professor Greg Long (School of Allied Health and Communicative Disorders). Building this course has been an absolute labor of love for everyone involved, and we thought it would be helpful to share what we have learned. This article summaries our recommendations based on our experience and on the research we conducted to prepare for our MOOC design.

    • Participate in a MOOC 
      The best way to learn about MOOCs is to take one. This will help you learn about what it is like to be a MOOC student and give you some inspiration for how to design one. There are many providers (such as Blackboard CourseSites, Canvas Network, Coursera, or EdX) and MOOCs cover a wide variety of topics. Find a course that is similar to the content you want to teach or choose a topic that is outside of your field but interests you. Since most MOOCs are free to take, the only investment is a few hours of your time each week. In fact, it would be even better to sign up for several MOOCs, to see the variety of approaches (and given that only about 10% of students complete a MOOC, there is no pressure to finish the courses).



    • Choose a topic you are passionate about and one that will be appealing to MOOC students
      Fortunately, that is the case for Perspectives on Disability. If you believe in your content, that enthusiasm will be visible to your students. A MOOC may be an opportunity for you to teach about something that is too narrow for a course or is outside of the primary focus for your field.  You should also consider whether the topic will attract MOOC students. Based on your experience, or on a more formal needs analysis, try to determine whether there is a demand for the topic, and whether other MOOCs or resources exist on the topic.


    • Determine your targeted audience, and design the course to meet the needs of that audience
      The entire design of the course, from content to language, teaching strategies to assessment, should be designed according to the needs and prior knowledge of your primary audience. For Perspectives on Disability, we designed the course for individuals with little or no prior knowledge of the content, and for participants from middle school through adulthood. This meant we kept the language simple, included introductory-level content, and provided a variety of assessment methods that would appeal to a wide audience.It is important to remember that in many MOOCs a substantial percentage of participants are from outside of the United States, and so English may not be their native language. Age, educational background, and prior knowledge may also vary among MOOC participants, therefore it is a good idea to clearly articulate prerequisites or provide supplementary resources.


    • Build a team
      Many faculty who have taught MOOCs recommend using a team approach for the design, development, and delivery. Rather than working alone, consider co-teaching with a colleague. Find students or colleagues who can provide feedback on the design. Identify at least one person who can test the course before thousands of students are trying to use it.


    • Plan the development process
      Unlike planning a course on your own, a MOOC has more complexities. Begin the project by creating a timeline for design and development tasks, like writing objectives, creating lectures, recording videos, designing assessments, and building the course. It is important to leave time for testing the course before potentially thousands of students access it.


    • Establish learning outcomes for the course before you begin selecting or creating materials
      This is, in fact, no different from our recommended practice for any course design. First, establish what students will learn in the course. Then it is possible to design learning activities to support those outcomes and create assessments that measure whether students achieved the desired outcomes. It is also important that the number of outcomes is appropriate for the length of the course (See Other MOOC Considerations, below).


    • Design communication plan and community development strategies
      Given the potential size of a MOOC, it is time consuming to manage communication with everyone. It can be helpful to encourage discussion and community development among students, so that you are not the central figure in the course. Discourage contacting you via email by creating discussion forums or using social media. Also, plan how and when the MOOC team will monitor the community and who is responsible for responding to the group or individuals, should it become necessary.


    • Create assessments for a massive audience
      Assessment is not a required element for a MOOC – many focus on forming networks and discussing content rather than formal assessment through tests or written work. If assessments are used, the scale of MOOCs makes many assessment techniques impractical. Consider using automated grading, like multiple choice exams or programmed response activities, or “grading” on effort and contribution rather than performance. In many cases, MOOCs offer certificates of completion to participants who submit assessments or contribute to the MOOC community.


Other MOOC Considerations

    • Technology
      It is not possible to use institutional technology, like NIU’s official Blackboard site, to deliver a MOOC because of the size of the potential audience. There are, however, many free tools that offer similar features.


    • Length and timing of the course
      Traditionally, courses follow the academic calendar, but that is not necessary for a MOOC. Courses can begin and end at any time. Currently, there is not any research into the ideal length of a MOOC, but most seem to be between 4 and 8 weeks long, with a few as long as 10 to 12 weeks.


    • Funding
      It is possible to offer a MOOC without significant financial investment. If, however, the MOOC requires special technology, paid staff to monitor it, or additional services, it may be necessary to seek out funding for development or delivery. Several agencies and educational technology associations offer grants for MOOC development, delivery, and research.


    • Promotion
      Promotion and marketing are necessary to attract students to a MOOC. This will likely utilize social media and professional networks to advertise the course and gain attention. Consider emailing professional associations, colleagues at other institutions, and other groups that may be interested in the content. It may also help to share information via Twitter or other social networks.


  • Legal
    MOOCs require caution regarding legal concerns, particularly copyright of any materials created for the MOOC or used from other sources and the privacy of student data and contributions. These concerns are just the beginning, however. It is important to be aware of the many legal issues that impact MOOCs and to consult with the Office of General Counsel.

Designing and delivering a MOOC is time-consuming, but it can forever alter your views on teaching and learning. NIU faculty who are interested in creating a MOOC are encouraged to consult with the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center for further guidance.


Many of the tips are adapted from these sources.

Joosten, T. (April 2013). Ten questions for MOOC design. Available at

Siemens, G. (September 2012). Designing and running a MOOC (in 9 easy steps). Available at

Tips to Reduce the Impact of Cheating in Online Assessment

Student sitting at computer

Preserving the integrity of student learning assessment is as much of a priority for online courses as it is for traditional face-to-face instruction. Although there is concern that academic dishonesty or ‘cheating’ might be more likely to happen in an online setting, studies comparing face-to-face and online settings have yielded mixed results (Grijalva, Nowell, Kerkvliet, 2006; Lanier, 2006; Stuber-McEwen, Wiseley, Hoggatt, 2009). Yet, a perception persists that challenges to preventing cheating are somewhat different in an online setting because faculty and students are physically separated from each other. This remoteness certainly makes it difficult to monitor various types of learning assessment activities.

Watson and Sottile (2010) have reported that cheating online can manifest in a number of ways including students who: (1) submit others’ work as their own, (2) receive/send answers from/to other students (by texting, using instant messaging, talking on a phone) while taking a test or quiz, (3) receive answers from a student who has already taken a test or quiz, (4) copy other students’ work without permission, (5) knowingly plagiarize from an article or book, or (6) use a term paper writing service.

Although it may be difficult to prevent cheating entirely, faculty can implement steps to reduce its impact in the student learning assessment process for online courses. The following are some practical tips to prevent or reduce cheating for two common learning assessment activities, namely testing and homework assignments.

Tips for Testing

    • Purposefully Select Assessment Methods – Use online testing, particularly objective test (i.e., multiple choice, multiple answer, true/false) for lower stakes assessment of student learning. In assessing student mastery of course goals and objectives, objective tests should be only one option considered among a spectrum of methods considered. Each type of assessment method may be designed to measure different indicators of student learning based on course goals and objectives. While an objective test can measure a student’s ability to recall or organize information, other methods can be used to assess higher order/critical thinking skills including understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating (Krathwohl, 2001).


    • Mix Objective and Subjective Questions – While online testing can include objective measures (multiple choice, multiple answer, true/false, fill in the blank, etc.), faculty can also include short answer or essay questions. This type of question is more subjective in nature and may demand a deeper understanding of the subject being tested. While mixing objective and subjective type questions may not discourage or stop sharing of information, it may limit the effect on the student’s final grade (Watson and Sottile, 2010).


    • Use Question Pools – Rather than using a fixed number of items that remain unchanged for each administration of the test, consider creating a question pool. Questions can be grouped by any number of criteria, including topic, subject matter, question type or difficulty of question. A pool will generate an assessment with randomized questions selected by the faculty member. Pools can be created from new questions or questions in existing tests or pools. Pools are most effective when there are large numbers of questions in one group. For example, one might have a pool of true/false questions, another of multiple choice and a third for fill in the blank. The faculty member could then create an assessment drawing a specific number of questions from each of the question-type pools. Faculty can also add new questions to pools each time the course is taught to expand the variability of questions. Conversely, older questions can be removed. Check the Teaching with Blackboard Question Pools web page for more details.


    • Randomize Questions – When creating a test in Blackboard, one test option allows faculty to randomize the selection of test questions as well as the order in which they appear. The result is that students are not likely to get the same questions in the same sequence when taking a test. This strategy can address the issue of students who take a test at the same time in order to share answers. This is also relevant if faculty allow students to repeat the test. Each time this occurs, a test will be made up of questions that are randomly selected and ordered.


    • Limit Feedback – Limit what types of feedback is displayed to students upon completion of a test. Available test options include test ‘Score’, ‘Submitted Answers’, ‘Correct Answers’, and ‘Feedback’. Providing test scores is important feedback that indicates how well students have performed and should be made available. However, through a process of elimination, students may be able to determine the correct answer for each test question if their submitted answers are identified as incorrect, or if the correct answer is provided. Students could lose the incentive to both prepare for testing or to seek out correct answers by reviewing lecture notes, assigned readings, or through group discussion after completing tests. Thus, faculty might reconsider whether to include ‘Submitted Answers’ as an option to be displayed to students. This is especially relevant if faculty have allowed students to repeat tests. Each time a test was taken, students could attempt a different answer for a test question that was previously graded as incorrect. Correct answers to all test questions could eventually be accumulated and passed on to other students, or to students of future classes.


    • Set Timer – Recognizing the fact that students taking an exam that is not proctored are free to use open book/notes, faculty may decide to use the ‘Set Timer’ feature in Blackboard. Students who adequately prepared for a test may be less likely to rely on open book/notes compared with students unprepared for testing. By setting a test with an expected completion time, unprepared students could have the most to lose as they spend time going over material, and risk not having sufficient time to respond to all the test questions.


    • Display Questions One At A Time – If a test has more than 5 questions, do not choose the ‘All at Once’ option for displaying all the questions on the same screen. It is quite easy for students to take a screen capture of the displayed questions and share them with other students. While students can still screen capture pages with single questions, or even type them into a document, it is more time consuming and unwieldy.


Tips for Homework Assignments

    • Create Application Assignments – Create assignments that require students to apply essential course concepts to a relevant problem. This may force students to seek relevant information beyond the assigned readings and lectures, and conduct independent research by identifying credible sources to support the development of their assignments. Students can be required to report their progress on a regular basis through email, or through the Journal feature in Blackboard. This documentation makes it easier for faculty to see the development of a student’s work from inception to completion, and possibly identify unexplained gaps that could occur if students used the work of others and claimed it as their own. Faculty can add input at any point in this process to provide guidance, and perhaps suggest new directions for students. Both documentation of progress through regular status reporting and occasional faculty input can add a greater level of scrutiny to students, making it more difficult to pass off the work of others as their own.


    • Create Group Assignments – Create group assignments that require students to interact with group members regularly. Groups can be made responsible for determining the functional roles for each member, establishing a mechanism for accountability (i.e., submitting weekly progress reports), and sharing drafts of individual progress on a group project. For a project to be truly collaborative, each group member should be familiar with everyone else’s work, and be able to describe how every group members’ contribution supports the whole group assignment. Students who are using the work of others may not be able to adequately describe the significance of their ‘own’ work, or how it integrates with the group’s overall project.


    • Create Assignments that Require Presentations – Faculty with a Blackboard course can use the web conferencing tool, Blackboard Collaborate, to conduct a synchronous online session for class presentations. Students may be asked to submit a progress report or use a Journal to reflect on what they have learned in the past week that supports work toward the presentation. To further scrutinize work on the presentation, students may be asked to include time for questions and answers. Students who have developed the presentation should be comfortable answering a range of topic-related questions. Faculty Developments offers workshops and one-on-one consultations on the use Blackboard Collaborate.


    • Check for Plagiarism using SafeAssignSafeAssign is a plagiarism prevention tool that detects matches between students’ submitted assignments and existing works by others. These works are found on a number of databases including ProQuest ABI/Inform, Institutional document archives, the Global Reference Database, as well as a comprehensive index of documents available for public access on the internet. SafeAssign can also be used to help students identify how to attribute sources properly rather than paraphrase without citing the original source. Thus, the SafeAssign feature is effective as both a deterrent and an educational tool. You can learn more about SafeAssign by visiting the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center’s Teaching with Blackboard SafeAssign Web page. Faculty Development also offers workshop and one-on-one consultations to faculty and staff on using SafeAssign.


    • Use Discussion Assignments – Create a Discussion Board assignment that requires students to demonstrate critical thinking skills by responding to a relevant forum topic. Faculty may also design a rubric that is specific to the Discussion Board assignments, and develop questions that require students to respond to every rubric category. Having assignments that are very specific makes it more difficult for students to use portions of a previous term paper or other sources that may only indirectly touch on the Discussion Board topic.


    • Include Academic Integrity Policy Statement in the Course Syllabus – Faculty should consider including a policy statement regarding academic integrity in their course syllabus. In addition, faculty may want to reiterate academic policies to students taking an online course and clarifying guidelines for completing test and assignments so that students are not confused about what they can and cannot do. While this, in and of itself, may not be sufficient to change behavior, its acknowledged presence in the syllabus recognizes a commitment to honesty in the academic arena and establishes the clear expectation that academic integrity is an important principle to live by. Faculty may also choose to mention this policy using the ‘Announcements’ feature in Blackboard, or while conducting a live web conference session.


Learn More

Preserving academic integrity is an ongoing challenge for traditional face-to-face, blended, and entirely online courses. While a number of expensive technology solutions, such as retinal eye scanners and live video monitoring are being developed to prevent cheating in online courses, the practical suggestions offered above can prevent or reduce the impact of cheating on assessing student performance in online courses. For more information on this topic, readers are invited to view the archived online workshop, “Tips for Assessing Student Learning Using Blackboard.”

In addition, the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center offers many Blackboard workshops, including those that touch on assessment. You are invited to visit the Faculty Development Web site that lists upcoming faculty and staff programs. Finally, readers are encouraged to review the following suggested readings and resources.

Suggested Readings and Resources

Grijalva, T., Nowell, C., & Kerkvliet, J. (2006). Academichonesty and online courses. College Student Journal, 40(1), 180-185.

Hi-Tech Cheating: Cell Phones and Cheating in Schools – A National Poll. Common Sense Media. Retrieved from

Krathwohl, D. R. (2001). A revision of Bloom’s taxonomy: An overview. In L.W. Anderson & D.R. Krathwohl (Eds.), A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. New York: Longman.

Lanier, M. (2006). Academic integrity and distance learning. Journal of Criminal Justice Education, 17(2), 244-261.

Luce, A. (2012, Sept. 17). How do I know students aren’t cheating? Instructional Design & Development Blog. Retrieved from

McNett, M. (2002). Curbing academic dishonesty in online courses. Pointers and Clickers: ION’s Technology Tip of the Month. Retrieved from

Olt, M. R., (2002). Ethics and distance education: Strategies for minimizing academic dishonesty in online assessment. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 5(3), Fall 2002.

Redmann, E. (n.d.) How Technology Is Raising the Stakes In Classroom Cheating. Edudemic. Retrieved from

Stuber-McEwen, D., Wiseley, P., & Hoggatt, S. (2009). Point, click, and cheat: Frequency and type of academic dishonesty in the virtual classroom. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 12(3), 1-10.

Trenholm, S. (2006-2007). A review of cheating in fully asynchronous online courses: A math or fact-based course perspective. Journal of Educational Technology Systems, 35(3), 281-300.

Watson, G., & Sottile, J. (2010). Cheating in the digital age: Do students cheat more in online courses? Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration. Retrieved from

Tutorials Offering Tips for Getting Started with Blackboard

Will you be teaching with Blackboard this fall for the first time? Or, perhaps you are looking to move to the next level in your use of the features in Blackboard? Here are a few new tutorials below providing tips for getting started with Blackboard.

For more details on teaching with Blackboard at NIU, visit where you will find a listing of upcoming workshops offered by the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center.

This video offers a quick glance at organizing your Blackboard course.

Want to make your Blackboard Learn course look great? A great looking course can encourage students and make their learning experience more engaging. This video will walk you through a few simple things you can do to customize the look and feel of your Blackboard Learn Course.

Your students’ first experience in your Blackboard course welcomes them to the course and a good impression can engage a student and encourage learning. This video will show you a few simple things that you can do to create excitement at the start of your course.

This video will introduce you to some of the communication tools available in Blackboard Learn and help you decide which ones match your teaching style.

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