Instructors may want to use visual prompts to foster discussion, help unify remote and on-campus students, and create a classroom community. Picture prompts can be varied to connect with the course theme.


Review the New York Times Learning Network‘s “Picture Prompts” series, “144 Picture Prompts to Inspire Student Writing.” On the landing page, there’s a great hand-drawn neighborhood map with chosen points of interest, which could serve as a multimodal accompaniment to our introductory self-assessment at the start of the semester (whether having incoming students familiarize themselves more with BU/Boston and selecting/describing points of interest, or perhaps creating one focused on their hometown to provide more personal background info and insights). Students who are on campus, as well as those who are remote, would all be able to participate: students could draw manually, digitally, use an app, etc.

Students’ maps can focus on one or more themes (such as food mapping), which can lead to the meaningful connections among classmates as they share them. Students could even narrate the mapping as they draw and record it, to be posted on a class website or Google drive.

Instructors may want to skim through the linked picture prompts lower down on the page, as many of them could inspire some interesting short writing exercises, ice-breakers, creative writing practice, etc. A different picture could be used at the beginning of each synchronous online and/or hybrid session, possibly selected by students, to prompt discussion.


  • Consider also using Rattle’s Ekphrastic Challenge series in a similar way, especially to connect with poetry as a target genre. Students can write their own poems; compare the artist- vs. editor-chosen winners; pitch their own images/photos for classmates to write poems about. There are many possible applications, and all are visually distinctive and can add interest and variety to classes.
  • Look at this example of one instructor’s use of a social media photo as a “picture prompt” specifically related to the theory sources her students were engaging with. While your specifics will vary, depending on the content of your course, this activity is obviously interactive, useful, and appealing for students.