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Post it Notes: Here’s how to start (and continue) a good, online class discussion

“Publish or perish!” used to be the lament of academia in the pre-digital age. While the delivery system may be different, students and instructors still make their grades with the written word. As an online student, that means crafting discussion posts that are thoughtful and grammatically correct.

When it comes to starting and creating a good online discussion, preparation and an early start are critical, said Brandy McDonough, associate dean of instruction at Bryant & Stratton College Online.

“Once you’ve identified the discussion questions or directions, then you can go back to your reading you’ve been assigned for the week to pull some ideas,” she said, adding that extra research online or in the virtual library is helpful. “By doing that, they’re going to be able to get information that’s more academic in nature that will support their own statements.”

Most initial posts are due by Tuesday, but the sooner you get a post rolling, the better, she said. The initial post will require more time up front if you take the initiative to do independent research. After that, about an hour a day should be enough time for you to catch up on posts and come up with questions to further the dialog, she said.

“As you post, go in and take a look at some peers’ discussion posts, respond to maybe a couple of posts that day,” McDonough said. “Then log in the next day and look to see if anybody’s responded to your posts. That way you can provide feedback to them.”

This doesn’t have to be a particularly time-consuming process, but it’s not something you can save for just one day, she said. Break it up over the course of the week to better manage your time and plan your responses.

“It doesn’t take too much time to go in and look at what others have shared, but it’s a great way to remain actively engage in that week’s discussion and see some of the feedback the instructor has provided,” McDonough said.

Be sure you also check back to see what the instructor adds.

“The instructor is the content expert,” she said. “You may find (instructor’s remarks) interesting and relevant to your own career path that might be helpful, or it might spark some different ideas and/or discussions that you might want to continue to have throughout the week.”

If the discussion starts to wander, you can kindly guide it back on topic. McDonough suggests you find a common interest with the poster who’s off track – a career goal, a similar experience – and ask that person a question that loops the dialog back into the central theme.

“You just have to be careful to do it in a respectful way and not call it out as ‘You guys are off topic,’” she said.

Other points McDonough suggests you keep in mind:

1.    Make sure your responses actually do something to further the conversation. “Great point, Susie!” and the like really don’t cut it.

2.    Don’t use all caps. It comes off as very abrupt and can be considered shouting.

3.    If you use a different font color in your replies, don’t choose red.

4.    Be very careful about grammar and how you write. Remember to capitalize “I” appropriately. McDonough recommends reading a post aloud to catch as many errors as possible.  

“These are things that can come off to others as perhaps not academic in nature and you may not get as many responses from classmates,” she said.


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