Sunday, September 06, 2020

Online Course Communication Tips: How to Write Better Discussion Posts in Online Classes

You can make your experience in online courses (and all courses) better by thinking about how your work and participation affects other students. For online classes, a lot of that has to do with creating discussion posts that are easy to read and engage with. So here we give some guidance on how your discussion posts can contribute to a better experience for other students, and you yourself too!

Online courses have many requirements, some of which the instructors (and students) realize along the way. 

Some concerns are technical: for example, about how to operate Blackboard or the LMS (Learning Management System).

Other concerns are more profound and relate to thinking about your audience or readers and what can improve their reading experience with your posts. These concerns are based on empathy: seeing things from others' points of view, understanding their perspectives, and acting in ways that benefit these other people, given their perspectives and concerns. 

Here's an in-progress list of what's needed; check back for more tips.


  • DO NOT HAVE LONG PARAGRAPHS: follow the rule of "one main topic per paragraph." You NEVER want to have an assignment of any kind that is a single long paragraph if there are multiple topics per paragraph. That is true for all writing, but it's especially true for online writing. (Additional writing tips are here). 
  • PROOFREAD and REVIEW YOUR SUBMITTED WORK: when you submit your work, e.g., post a blog post or a discussion post, look at it. Does it look nice? Does it look professional? Here are some concerns:
    • Is there space (a "return") between paragraphs? Is that space the same between all paragraphs?
    • Are there any indents? If so, are there indents on all paragraphs, so it's consistent?
    • Is the font, font size and font color the same? Is some text highlighted and other text not highlighted? If so, you need to develop the technical skills to fix that: one thing that's helpful is the "remove formatting" button on the Blackboard text editor.
  • GRAMMAR and SPELLING: simple grammatical and spelling errors are distracting, and you don't want anyone distracted from your main message. And these are errors that are just so easy to avoid these days that's there is really no excuse for them. So, use spell and grammar-check on your computer for everything educational or professional that you write: there is a great free program called that works especially well that you should get, use and even learn from.
  • GIVE CONTEXT: when responding to discussion boards, include the prompt you are responding to (and bold it or bold and underline it: that way, no readers have to think, "OK, what is this in response to?" because you will have made that obvious.
  • "QUOTE" OTHER STUDENTS WHEN RESPONDING TO THEM: when you respond to others' posts, include what you are responding to: there is a "quote" button that allows that. If you do not do that, then it is hard to know what you are responding to, so please include that. Not including their initial post is like responding to an email but deleting the message that you are responding to: nobody knows what you are responding to that way, and that's not helpful. 
  • DON'T UPLOAD PDFs: to make your posts immediately accessible, they should be created (or cut and pasted) as text on the discussion board: don't upload files, expecting that other students or the instructor is doing to download them, open them, read them, and then somehow comment on them, even though the text isn't really there to comment on. In short, always make things easy on readers. (A related rule: don't send information by email attachment when you could have just as easily put that information in the body of an email). 
  • WRITE POSTS THAT OTHER STUDENTS WANT TO RESPOND TO: instructors should try to develop discussion prompts and assignments that encourage or require students to respond to in ways that invite and encourage other students to respond to. Even if students are not asked to do so, they can think about how they can write their responses in ways that encourage other students to do respond. It's at least worth thinking about how to effectively do this. 
  • WE WANT RESPONSES TO BE SUBSTANTIAL, SERIOUS, AND ENGAGING: the point of a discussion board is, really, to discuss. So we don't want to just affirm each others' posts, but we want to see where they can take us, in terms of extending or applying what was said to other topics, raising questions about the topic, raising objections ("have you considered this?") and more. See this post on better discussion responses

  • "Here are some prompts that might help you create more effective replies to your peers (you learn more) and earn you more points. For each reply, please comment on your peer's post, perhaps what you learned or found interesting, and then add new information to the conversation. Here are some prompts that might be helpful in directing your replies. 
    First, summarize your peer’s post

    I appreciated how you explained … because I learned…
    What I found really interesting about what you said ...
    Then, transition to what you will add to the conversation:
    And, I think that we also need to consider…
    Another important question we need to think about is…
    What this means is …
    That makes me think of …
    I am confused about …, what I know is … and I would like help …
    While you said…, I disagree because…"
  • SET THINGS UP TO AUTO-RECEIVE RESPONSES TO YOUR POSTS: you can usually set up discussion boards so that you are notified when people respond to your posts. Figure out how to set that up in your system since "discussions" are real discussions only when there's that type of interaction and back and forth, and that happens only when you know that someone has responded to you.
  • READ AND RESPOND TO RESPONSES: check to see if and when other students and your instructor responds to your responses. See what they have to say and respond to them about their response!
  • KNOW THE REQUIREMENTS: there are usually length and "depth" requirements for discussion posts and other assignments. Make sure you know what these are.
  • SAVE YOUR POSTS: save your posts, either by cutting and pasting them into the course system from somewhere else (making sure you address the formatting) or cutting and pasting them from the system into a word processor document. That way if your posts get lost or deleted, you've got backup.
  • ANNOUNCEMENTS: often there are many announcements about online classes, so make sure you frequently check wherever those are sent out and/or posted. 
More guidelines, TBA! Check back!

And here's a song about being online that you might like, or you won't!


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