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4 Tips for Writing Effective Discussion Posts

Posted on Monday November 5, 2012 by Michael Keathley

Discussions are one of the most common online class activities. Typically, students are asked to post an initial response to a prompt; then at least two replies to other students’ posts. Because they are seen as replacements for the two-three hours that would have been spent in a brick and mortar classroom, these discussions are often worth 25-35% of students’ final grades.

Unfortunately, many students neglect to use discussions to their full potential. Participants sometimes view this part of the online class as a chat room. It’s not unusual to see students complete all three posts within ten minutes. The replies are cursory, but their emotions run deep when they do not receive a good evaluation from their professor.

Additionally, students may be intimidated by discussions. They may be new to virtual education, first-term or returning adults, or simply hesitant to put themselves out there in print. To a certain extent, most people are nervous about publishing a piece of writing in a public forum such as this, especially when they know someone will be responding to what they’ve said and someone will be evaluating it. Students may simply not know how to participate in a conversation within the academic context of an online course.

There are some techniques to help you better meet or exceed the expectations of online discussions in courses while making them more effective for learning and less intimidating for you. Here are four tips.

Follow All Directions

One way to meet expectations and lessen the anxiety about posting is to follow directions. This is a way to not only show your professor that you have completed the activity, but it also makes the assignment seem more removed from you personally. Consider this as being similar to one of the daily functions you perform at work. Those typically don’t spark anxiety or nervousness, right?

To begin, use the question(s) asked to formulate your responses. For example, let’s say you are asked to read an article that shares tips for communicating professionally in the workplace. Then you are to write an initial response about how you could apply one of the tips you learned in your own job. You might begin your reply by stating, “One way the fourth tip on “emotional awareness” could be applied in my job is…” Try to flesh out your example with some concrete details.

Also, be sure to check for other requirements. Some online schools will require you to

    • reply to at least two other students,

    • post at least two replies on four different days of the week,

    • refer specifically to reading assignments,

    • link to external sources,

    • practice or use a documentation style (e.g., APA),

    • or meet other such expectations.

Be sure you accomplish these steps. In fact, even if you are not required to do them, each is a good tip for not only meeting, but exceeding expectations on discussion boards.

Revise and Edit

Although discussions in online classes are usually not as formal as an academic paper, they are also not informal chats where any sort of language is acceptable. Posts should maintain a semi-formal level of writing. The Harvard Business Review provides a good overview of what this means along with some links to additional resources. In summation, it’s fine to use the first and second-persons (I, we, and you), but other informalities (e.g., slang, cursing, local expressions, etc.) should be avoided.

Students should also take the time to revise their posts carefully before submitting them. It may help to compose your response in Word first; then copy and paste your reply into the discussion window and submit it. The University of North Carolina’s Writing Center provides some excellent guidance on revision. Keep in mind the overall goal is to “look again” at the content of your message. For discussions, ask yourself: “Does this piece really respond to the discussion prompt? How would I evaluate this if I were the professor, using the directions (and rubrics)?

Furthermore, be sure to follow good netiquette (Internet + etiquette) guidelines to ensure you are meeting the nuances of virtual communication. Your school may have an established policy that should be followed. If not, more general guidelines may be consulted.

Equally important is the expectation that posts contain good grammar and mechanics. Do run your posts through spell/grammar check either in Word or within the “reply” box of the discussion. Check carefully for common weaknesses: Missing letters/words/punctuation and wrong words (e.g., confusing ‘defiantly’ with ‘definitely’) are two of the most frequent.

If you take care to carefully revise and edit your posts before submitting them, you will meet and possibly exceed expectations for the assignment. Knowing you did this will improve your confidence and lessen your anxiety, too, especially if your posts are evaluated favorably by your professor.

Embrace Their Purpose

Another technique for gaining the most from online class discussions and for reducing anxiety is to really enjoy and embrace their purpose. The goal is to help you learn, so see each week’s discussion as a chance to enhance your academic progress. You can do this by:

    • posting as early as possible in the week so that you have full opportunity to benefit by the responses you make and receive.

    • keeping your content focused concisely on the topic and expectations. No matter how strongly you may feel personally about a topic, course discussions are public forums within the academic/professional context; therefore, they are not the place to vent or disclose personal issues.

    • making your posts substantive. Offer additional information in your replies, ask questions, offer alternative views—anything which helps to keep the conversation moving forward for all.

    • looking for ways the topic of the discussion and response fit into the overall progression of the course content. Lessons should build one upon the other as you move through the course. This is known as scaffolding. Think carefully about how the content also builds toward a connection to your future career and profession.

    • trying to go beyond the basic expectations. The minimum requirement may be at least two replies to classmates. Why not be proactive and post substantively more than that? Consider involving multimedia (e.g., embed part of a response as an audio or video file) if you are able.

In general, going appropriately beyond the expectations of the discussions will enable you to learn more and to gain increasing confidence. This will also increase as you receive positive acknowledgements from classmates and your professor.

Ask Questions

The last tip for getting the most out of discussions in classes and for lessening your fears is to ask questions. We’re told all the time that the only stupid question is the one we don’t ask. If you don’t understand a discussion activity or you aren’t sure if an idea for a response is appropriate, ask your professor. Feel free to ask questions of the class at the end of a post. This actually helps build the online learning community. It may set other students’ minds at ease as they probably also have questions. You may also help the professor guide your learning.

Discussions in online courses do not have to be intimidating. By following the four tips listed above, discussions in online courses can greatly enhance your learning, increase your confidence within the academic/professional contexts, and improve your overall grade in the course. Not only will your final score improve on the discussions, but because of the scaffolding typically built into virtual courses, you will most likely improve on related assignments and larger projects.

Do you have any helpful discussion tips to share? Please feel free to share them in the “Comments” area below.

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