Online Discussion Prompts for Introductory Geology

Karen Kortz, Community College of Rhode Island and Jessica Smay, San Jose City College


This set of 17 online discussion prompts are designed to encourage students to apply, explore, and reflect on course topics. Some are content-specific (e.g. investigate misconceptions about a certain topic or take a picture of a geologic resource in their home or neighborhood) while others can be used at any time (e.g. write multiple-choice exam questions or identify geologic places to visit). Many questions require students to poll their friends and family about common geologic misconceptions. Each prompt is written in a consistent Prepare-Post-Respond format with a grading rubric. These discussions are a great way to increase regular effective contact in an online course.

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These online discussions have been used in introductory geology courses for non-majors, but they can be adapted for other introductory geoscience courses.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Some discussion prompts require students to have done the course preparation (e.g. reading the textbook, watching lecture videos) for the week, while others are independent of specific content.

How the activity is situated in the course

These are weekly assignments. Instructors can choose which prompts best fit into their course. They are designed to be a fairly low-stakes component of the course, where students can feel comfortable learning about course content and each other. These discussion questions can help build community in an online course and to help instructors include regular effective contact in their course.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

The goals vary depending on the prompt. Examples of goals are for students to

  • Identify common misconceptions about Earth's interior, plate tectonics, rocks, or earthquakes
  • Reflect on what questions they have about course content
  • Explore how geology is relevant in their lives

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

The goals vary depending on the prompt. For example, students may

  • Apply their content knowledge to evaluate if responses are accurate
  • Select information to write exam questions
  • Respond to posts of classmates

Other skills goals for this activity

Overall, the purpose of the online discussions is for students to interact with their classmates, which can contribute to them forming a community and sense of belonging. Students must respond to other students in a thoughtful and supportive manner.

Description and Teaching Materials

Below are the online discussion prompts and grading rubrics. Each prompt includes the discussion topic, the directions for students (with Prepare, Post, and Respond sections), and the grading rubric.

Online Geology Discussion Prompts (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 126kB Aug5 20)

The language in the directions for students will need to be modified slightly depending on what LMS is being used, since submission buttons are slightly different. The instructor will need to create the discussions in their Learning Management System, and then for each discussion, they will need to copy and paste the prompt and instructions in.

Teaching Notes and Tips

  • Some of these posts can be used repeatedly in your course. For example, the posts where students write quiz questions could be used before each exam.
  • If you have a larger class, you may consider dividing students into smaller groups so that students only respond to other students in their group. This will help them get to know each other better and build community.
  • The directions are written without a specific number of responses students are expected to make to other students. If you wish to have a specific minimum number, then you should add it to the directions and the rubric. You should also include if students are expected to reply to the replies of other students.
  • You may want to include directions for students to end some of their posts or replies with a question. This requires students to self-reflect and often leads to better responses and discussions.


Each discussion prompt has a rubric. The rubrics are simple: students meet, partially meet, or do not meet expectations. The numbers assume that each discussion is worth 10 points. Additional descriptions and clarifications can be added if desired. For example, Karin Kirk has a much more detailed online discussion rubric.

References and Resources

Here are links to two other online discussion directions that can be used to complement the ones presented here.