How To Write A Question For Discussion

The purpose of discussion questions is to generate discussion. This makes them significantly different from information-seeking questions. Information-seeking questions ask after information either the asker already knows (as in a test) or that the asker knows is generally ‘known’ (as in asking where the bathroom is, or what time it is). This information is already clearly known, defined, and understood. The bathroom, for example, isn’t changing locations any time soon. The purpose of discussion questions is to broaden current understanding through discussing with other people. Discussion questions don’t look for an answer--there is no predefined ‘right’ answer--so much as to lead understanding in a new direction, to take our thinking on a path we’ve never been before.

A discussion question is basically a prompt that sets us in a direction or down a path so that we can collaboratively expand and extend our understanding...this may end up leaving us with more questions, but at least we have a better understanding of the problem itself, even if we don’t have any answers.

Successful discussion questions--questions that get people talking and lead to productive conversation--have a few basic elements:

  1. First, a setup. The setup gets us all on the same page and establishes some common understanding before moving on to what we don’t understand. In philosophy classes, the setup commonly takes the form of briefly stating something from one of the course readings in your own words, and then following that up with a quote or brief passage that you’re drawing from.
  1. E.g.: Bynum argues that contemporary discussions of things like zombies and teleportation reveal that 20th century Americans typically think the body’s physical integrity is central to personal identity. “Recent philosophical discussion,” she explains, “seems to find it almost impossible to envision personal survival without material continuity” (60).
  1. Second, you state your question. Now that you’ve framed your question with the setup, ask it. Be clear and direct. Often the first few attempts at stating your question will ask *around* the real underlying issue you’re trying to think about without directly hitting that issue in the bullseye.
  1. E.g.:But Bynum’s article is over 25 years old, and digital technologies like social media and data analytics didn’t exist then. Has the invention of virtual space and virtual identities (like social media profiles or our data profiles kept by Google) changed our attitudes about the relationship between personal identity and physical embodiment?
  1. Finally, you suggest something concrete to think about to get our brains going. Toss out a potential example. Without this gentle nudge in a specific direction, it is often hard for audiences to get a grasp on your question. If you stopped at step 2, you’d be saying “What do you think about walking?”; step 3 gets you to say “How about walking to the library?” (at which point you could say: oh, it’s across campus and up a hill, so no). This part of the question doesn’t offer your response or answer to the question--it just gives us an example or a case study to think more concretely about.
  1. E.g.: On the one hand, our physical bodies seem to influence how we are treated in virtual spaces: academic research shows that people perceived to be women of color receive more online harassment than people perceived not to be women of color. On the other hand, we now have stories about bodyless AI that develop their own personalities, and, indeed, lives (e.g., the movie HER).