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Assessment Strategies: Prompts


The learning process can be conceptualized as constructing meaning from information and experience. Through the process of asking and answering questions and using examples, faculty can promote active learning. While many methods for promoting learning for students taking online courses are similar to those used in traditional courses, the types of questions and their wording take on new importance in the online environment due to the absence of face-to-face interpersonal interaction. A question that requires in-depth thought about course material is called a prompt. Prompting students pushes them to delve into course material deeply, to make nuanced connections between different ideas presented in the course, and to think about the material flexibly to create novel ideas.


Please click below for an audio introduction to Using Prompts.


Instructions on How to Use Prompts

There are two basic types of prompts. The first occurs before a reading or other presentation of material in a course. The other occurs after reading or presenting course material. Pre-reading prompts activate a student’s prior knowledge about a topic. By activating prior knowledge, the student can connect with the material she is reading. Pre-reading prompts can also dispose students to think about the material before they delve into it. Students can be asked any of the questions listed below, or they can be asked to develop questions on a topic that they can then answer through their reading.

Prompts that occur after reading or other types of presentations on course materials can foster students’ understanding of what they have read, how this material fits into the larger discipline, and how this material creates or challenges the basic ideas espoused by the discipline. There are many different styles of prompts that serve different purposes (see table below for examples).

Pre-reading and post-reading prompts can be combined in very powerful ways to assess students’ learning and growth. Students can be asked to think about their initial ideas on a topic. They can be presented with multiple readings on differing perspectives about a topic. Following their reading, students can be asked to synthesize the material or to use it to solve real world problems.

Another dimension for using prompts is collaborative student group work for generating answers to prompts. Peer review could provide an opportunity for students to consider each other’s responses in a small online group before each student shares his answers with the larger class. Students could also discuss answers to a prompt in small groups, read course material, and then reach a consensus on an answer to another prompt. These student groups could then share this information with the larger group, and a large group online discussion could ensue.

Prompts serve as an excellent tool for stimulating discussion and mitigating one of the challenges of the online course environment: creating a sense of community in an online course.

In serving as a tool to stimulate the creation of a sense of community, the use of prompts requires that instructors think about their own “presence” in online courses. Teaching presence has been defined as the “design, facilitation, and direction of cognitive and social processes for the purpose of realizing personally meaningful and educationally worthwhile learning outcomes” (Anderson, Rourke, Garrison, & Archer, 2001). It is insufficient for instructors to solely ask questions of students. Faculty should continually comment on student discussion posts and pose follow-up questions to extend the dialogue. Further information on increasing teacher presence in online courses can be found at:



Anderson T., Rourke L., Garrison D., & Archer, W. (2001). Assessing teaching presence in a computer conferencing context. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 5(2). Retrieved from http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=

Discussion Prompts

Question type Purpose Example
Exploratory Probe facts and basic knowledge What research evidence supports -----?
Challenge Examine assumptions, conclusion, interpretations How else might we account for -----?
Relational Ask for comparison of themes, ideas, issues How does ----- compare to -----?
Diagnostic Probe motives or causes Why did -----?
Action Call for a conclusion or action In response to -----, what should ----- do?
Cause and effect Ask for causal relationships between ideas, actions, events If ----- occurred, what would happen?
Extension Expand the discussion What are additional ways that -----?
Hypothetical Pose a change in the facts or issues Suppose ----- had been the case, would the outcome have been the same?
Priority Seek to identify the most important issue From all that we have discussed, what is the most important -----?
Summary Elicit syntheses What themes or lessons have emerged from -----?
Problem Challenge students to find solutions to real or hypothetical situations What if -----? (To be motivating, students should be able to make some progress on finding a solution, and there should be more than one solution.)
Interpretation Help students to uncover the underlying meaning of things From whose viewpoint or perspective are we seeing, hearing, and reading? What does this mean? or, What may have been intended by -----?
Application Probe for relationships and ask students to connect theory to practice How does this apply to that? or Knowing this, how would you -----?
Evaluative Require students to assess and make judgments Which of these are better? Why does it matter? So what?
Critical Require students to examine the validity of statements, arguments, and conclusions, and to analyze their thinking and challenge their own assumptions How do we know? What's the evidence and how reliable is the evidence?

From Barkley, E. F., Cross, K. P., & Major, C. H. (2005). Collaborative learning techniques (pp. 58). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Technical Requirements

No specific hardware or software is required to use Prompts.


Every e-Tool in the e-Toolbox was reviewed by either a UDI Online Project research and design team member, or one or several faculty at five partner institutions who incorporated a specific e-Tool into an online or blended course they taught. Faculty from these partner institutions also requested that students review the e-Tool included in a course or products created through the use of the e-Tool (e.g., documents, videos, audio clips, or other items). Likert scale surveys with open-ended questions were used by respondents.  Feedback from the reviewing UDI Online team member or faculty who used a tool is presented in addition to student ratings when available.


e-Tool Review Results

Faculty e-Tool Review Results
Number of faculty reviewers: 1

A member of the project research and design team has used this e-tool in a course. Prompts are a great way to engage students in higher order thinking. The key element in their creation is balancing the opportunity for critical thinking with specificity. In other words, there is a delicate balance between making questions too broad or too narrow.