Understanding the Rhetorical Situation of Online Discussion Post Assignments

Is this your first time taking an online class or being in a class where the instructor has you do assignments on Blackboard even though it’s a face to face class? Maybe you’ve had to do discussion posts before, but your grades on them weren’t as high as you’d hoped and you’re not sure why.  Don’t fear. Help is only a few short paragraphs away.

First of all, make sure you have read and understand the basic guidelines of the post assignment.  This may seem pretty obvious, but I’ve had several of my own students wonder why they didn’t do very well on a post when what they posted had nothing to do with the topic they were asked to discuss or when they wrote a post that was 150 words when the minimum was 300.  If you aren’t sure about something, always ask your instructor for clarification.

Next, realize that although your communication is online, the type of writing that your instructor is looking for is going to be more similar to other formal writing assignments you have for a class rather than the type of writing you may be used to doing for other online forums (your social media accounts).  This means you need to use complete sentences and standard grammar. Your post (or response) should have a main point which is supported by specific examples and should be well organized. It should demonstrate that you understand the concepts from a particular reading or portion of the class.  You might also be asked to compare and contrast them to other concepts you are learning or apply them to real world situations. What this means is that you need to allow yourself plenty of time to not only write, but revise and edit your post if you want to make sure you get the highest grade you can.

Sometimes, the title “discussion post” sounds deceptively informal.  Let’s say your post is supposed to be 400 words.  Many students think about how long it’s going to take them to type a response to the prompt the instructor has given them that’s at least this long, and that’s how much they allow to complete the assignment.  Instead, think of this as a 2 page paper that you need to write.  How long do you need to write a draft? (Most students need an hour or so.)  Okay, then you need some time away from it so when you revise or edit it, you are looking at it with “fresh” eyes.  Ideally, this would be at least a day…but even a couple of hours away from it will help. Then you should plan on the same amount of time for revision and editing that you took to create the initial draft. (It may not take you this long, but until you get a feel for what’s realistic, this is a good guideline.)

So, that original hour assignment has now become a 4+ hour assignment. Perhaps that’s not the news you want to hear, but if you are having problems doing well on these assignments and you haven’t been putting very much time into them, this is something to look at.

Here are some other useful tips that should help you not only do better on your assignments, but also should help you have more productive discussions with your peers.

Although many instructors use discussion threads to encourage the exploration and exchange of ideas among students in a way similar to classroom discussions in a face to face setting, there is a major difference between this type of discussion and an oral discussion in a classroom. Remarks posted on a discussion board are in print. They can be accessed, downloaded, and printed—all which lends an air of permanence to what you say that does not exist in a regular conversation. Therefore, you should keep the following guidelines from William Draves’ Teaching Online in mind when posting remarks to a discussion thread:

1. Think of your comments as being published in a newspaper. A newspaper is available to members of a local community. In the same way, your comments are available to everyone in the “community” of your class. You may be responding directly to one member, but you need to always keep in mind that the other members of the class, including your teacher, can read what you post. And like information in a newspaper, your comments are archived and available for quite some time.

2. Don’t let emotion drive your comments/responses. It’s great to have emotion and be passionate. However, reason and logic should be the driving force behind your comments. Remember, these discussions are class assignments. Instructors are issuing grades based on them, and they are interested in seeing how you understand, evaluate, and synthesize ideas and concepts presented in the class materials and readings. Remember, academic writing is grounded in the logical appeal.

3. Focus on the ideas at hand. A personal connection, if relevant and helpful to the class, is usually fine, but otherwise you should avoid delving into personal problems and issues. Unless an instructor specifically asks you to share your personal experiences, you should try to focus on other ways which you can support what you are saying.  Evidence that goes beyond your personal experience of the world will add credibility to your writing. This doesn’t mean that you have to do additional research (again unless the post asks for it), but you can use what we call “common knowledge.” This is information that’s generally accepted to be known by pretty much everyone.  It’s sort of a middle ground between your personal experience and research specific information (something others in the class wouldn’t know unless they’d read the same source you did).

4. Avoid being overly negative. You can disagree, but you can also agree to disagree. Despite what we might see portrayed in various media, reasonable people often do. Avoid being aggressive or condescending. Don’t use all caps. or excessive question marks or exclamation marks for emphasis. If you must emphasize a word or phrase, use italics. (You should do this quite sparingly, though, as it may unintentionally change the tone of your post making it seem more aggressive or negative than you intend.) State why you disagree with the ideas someone states; don’t attack the person for having those ideas. Remember, one of the goals for discussion board assignments is usually that—a discussion, an exchange of ideas. Talking with people is inherently different from talking at them. Work on creating posts and responses to others that facilitate communication, not that inhibit it.

5. Make the comments you post about other students’ work the ones you’d want to read about your own posts. Whether you agree or disagree with the content of what someone posts, try to frame your remarks in as positive of a way as possible. Doing so will have a higher chance of encouraging a real discussion between you and the person you are responding to. Also realize that while you might emphatically disagree with someone on one specific post, you may find that you agree wholeheartedly with that same person later in the semester. That person may also be the only one who comes to your defense when it seems as if everyone else shares an opposing view from yours in a later post. With the distance and anonymous quality of digital communication, it’s hard to sometimes remember that there is another real person on the receiving end of the comments we write-or perhaps that our comments would have any impact on a person we have never met. Therefore, it’s a good idea to take some time and review the comments you’ve constructed in a response before you actually post them. Try to imagine logging on to the discussion board and seeing those same words in response to something you have written. How would you react? Be polite and understated with your remarks. Remember, the words on the page are the only clues to what the reader has as to your tone. Any negativity will be magnified by the sense of vulnerability most people feel by having their writing available to others. Humor and sarcasm usually doesn’t read well in situations such as this and should be avoided, especially any attempts at inside jokes or any humor which comes at the expense of others in class.

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