Well Said!: How to Get More Out of Your Online Course Discussions

In an online course, discussion boards take the place of many of the face-to-face interactions that students have with their professors and their fellow students. These forums are more than just a place to socialize–they’re one of the key places you get to show what you know, ask questions, and engage with the course material in a deeper and more dynamic manner.

As such, part of getting the most out of your course and making a good impression (not to mention getting a good grade), is crafting posts and responses that are of high quality.

Well, you may be thinking, that’s easy to say, but not so easy to do. And you’re right in that it will take some effort, but the benefits—deeper learning and stronger relationships with classmates and instructors to name a few–can be well worth the challenge. And like anything, the more you practice, the easier it will get.

So where do you begin? Let’s start with the basics.

The Fundamentals of a Good Post

While each course will have its own dynamic and its own requirements, there are a few things that every good discussion post or response will have in common. Keep these in mind when writing your posts. Posts should be:

  • Relevant: When crafting your posts, always ask yourself if your post is relevant to the question being asked by the prompt or the ongoing discussion being had online. Anything personal or unrelated should be addressed in another forum, either entirely outside of the learning environment or in an email or personal message.
  • Appropriate: It should go without saying that posts should never contain language that’s harmful or offensive or attack other students. Yet, sometimes things that wouldn’t come across as rude or hurtful in a face-to-face conversation can appear that way online, as tone is very difficult to gauge when you only see text and don’t know the other person well. To ensure you’re not crossing the line, reread your posts carefully and remove anything that could possibly be seen as inappropriate. Remember, you can’t un-post things once they’re out there, so it’s better to be cautious and exercise good netiquette.
  • Original: Does your post add something new and extend the conversation? You don’t want to retread what someone else has already said, so work at finding your own angle to the question. That may take time and thought, but you’ll get better responses and a better grade when you work to stand out from the crowd.
  • Readable: Want people to read your post and respond? Then make it easy for them. No one wants to try to navigate a post that’s riddled with grammatical and spelling errors, is weirdly formatted, and rambles on and on without ever getting to the point. Avoid random capitalization, don’t use texting abbreviations (these should never appear in your academic work unless you’re writing a paper on them), and be clear and precise in your answer.
  • Supported: Just like when you’re writing a paper, being able to cite your sources in your post, even if it’s just the book or lecture, gives you a lot more authority. Even better, finding and using information outside of the course material to support your discussion (from a reliable source, of course) can really help add to the conversation and improve your understanding of the material.

The Posting Process

Once you know the basic rules for crafting a great post, it’s time to get down to the business of actually writing it. A good place to start is with rereading the discussion prompt. This will help ensure that you’re staying on topic with your answer and know exactly what your professor is asking for. If others have already posted, you can also read their posts (if your professor allows this) to see what has already been said and where you can take the discussion.

Ideally, you should not only answer the question but also leave things open for more discussion, either by bringing up interesting points or counterpoints or by asking an intriguing question. Remember, you don’t have to post the first thing you write—if you don’t like your first draft you can make revisions until you’ve got it right (at least up until the deadline your instructor has for the course). This can be a great point to go back and reread or reference class materials to check whether you’ve understood a concept correctly.

If it’s appropriate, cite references in your answer. This can mean pointing to other sources or simply noting the page number you’re referring to from the class materials (like in a novel, for example). Additionally, before you hit send, give your post a good look over to avoid any spelling or grammar mistakes and to be sure that it reads clearly.

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Going Beyond

How can you not just meet the requirements but go above and beyond? It’s not actually as hard as you might think. Here are some tips:                  

  • Help others. A great way to learn is to teach others. If you understand something in your course and you see that someone else is struggling, offer your help. This will build comradery and help you deepen your understanding of the things you’re learning at the same time.
  • Use video and audio options when you can. Sometimes, text can misrepresent your intent because visual and auditory clues are missing—these other formats can help you get your point across.
  • Network. It’s important to build connections with other students and your instructors. Develop a group you like to converse with, but also make an effort to converse with everyone in your course at least once.
  • Ask questions. Don’t just shrug off things you don’t understand. Instead, ask for clarification. There are no stupid questions when it comes to ensuring you know the material.
  • Become a title master. Crafting a title that catches the eye of your classmates can help get you more responses.
  • Make sure your posts facilitate comments. Don’t let your responses be a bookend—add questions, ask for others opinions, and engage with the other students in your class.
  • Apply the theoretical concepts to something else.  You can make use of your personal experiences, current events, even another course to make a point about the material and show how it applies in the real world. If you can, link to other resources that support your connection.
  • Play devil’s advocate. Looking to spark a debate? Try a “yeah, but what if” type of post. These can help get both your and your classmates thinking about how the material applies in a wide range of situations.
  • Be different. Don’t just say what everyone else is saying. It can get boring to read 20 of the same responses. Find your own take on the issue.
  • Don’t over contribute. Being actively engaged in your discussion board is awesome, but no one likes talking to someone who dominates the conversation. Leave room for other students to talk.

What If You’re Shy or Anxious?

Apprehensiveness about participating in online discussions isn’t uncommon. Just as some students may shy away from participating in face-to-face courses, many feel the same shyness in online courses. How can you overcome this?

First, you can ask your professor for tips or help if you know you are usually shy or have trouble speaking up. You can also get to know your classmates better so that you don’t feel like you’re talking to a group of strangers and like you have allies in class.

Also, always keep in mind that most students in your class don’t know any more about the topic than you, so if you’re struggling or aren’t sure, you’re certainly not alone. Everyone is learning together, and there is no reason to feel shy or embarrassed about not knowing something.

In many ways, online discussions may be easier for you as a shy student, as you will have plenty of time to think about your responses before posting and won’t have to endure the anxiety that often comes with speaking in front of a classroom full of students. Just remember not to let your shyness keep you from participating in the class—you have something to offer, too!

Why Discussion Matters

Why is discussion such a big part of so many online courses? It’s a valid question, but the answer doesn’t vary much from that which you could give for a face-to-face course: high-quality dialog engages students, gets them thinking, and ensures that students really understand the material.

In the online environment where courses are administered asynchronously, discussions may even gain an edge. Students have time to carefully reflect on the question asked of them and the comments of other students before responding themselves. This allows students to articulate responses that are deeper and more thought out than they might be able to come up on the spot as they would in a face-to-face class. It also ensures that everyone has a chance to participate, not just those who are the most extroverted or assured.

Discussions also help remove some of the isolation that students can feel as online learners. They help to build the sense of community and support that students naturally have in a traditional course. Studies have shown that frequent interactivity in an online course helps keep students motivated and ultimately makes them more successful as online students.

You should give your all to your online discussions because they play a big role in helping you get more out of your online courses. You will learn more, feel more supported, and gain valuable insights from your interactions with your professors. You may even develop friendships and professional relationships that will stay with you for years to come. Most importantly, being an active participant in discussion lets you own your educational experience, which can help make you a lifelong learner and a passionate and engaged expert in whatever field you choose to pursue, which is one of the most valuable things you will take away from your college education.