It may seem as though online discussions will be easy – after all, don’t we as students have lots of experience with posting in the online world? However, online discussions on say, Tumblr or Reddit, are vastly different from the sort of discussion expected of students in an academic environment.
To be fair, there are some similarities. In both cases, an online discussion is essentially a conversation between individuals; as such, there is usually a fluid back-and-forth quality to the communication.
As far as similarities go, that may be it. Online discussions in a university-level course require a certain standard of analytical thinking, proper grammar and spelling, and constructive feedback to peers that is often, to put it lightly, lacking in other online forums.
My recent experience as a discussion facilitator has prompted me to think about how students can be successful in the online academic world.
Here are some strategies that I’ve uncovered:
- Make sure you know the course requirements. This is probably the most important strategy on this list. If you don’t know what’s expected of you, how will you succeed? Some professors may have very specific expectations. How many posts do you need to write? How many times do you need to respond to the posts of your peers? Do you need to provide citations? If so, what citation style should you use? The syllabus should be your best friend!
- Consult the rubric. This is a close second as most important strategy. The rubric, if provided, will tell you exactly what your professor will be looking for when grading. If you want an A, this is the best way to ensure you achieve it!
- Don’t just summarize. If your discussions are based on course readings, you may be tempted to just summarize the material. Do. Not. Do. This. Summarizing the material does not demonstrate the critical thinking skills that online discussions are meant to draw out. Instead, go beyond the course material, as explained in my next point…
- Make connections. Online discussions are a perfect opportunity to showcase that you really do understand the course material. You can do this by making connections to real world scenarios or events, by providing examples or illustrations, and by connecting different theories within the material to your main discussion point. Posts that make connections beyond the course material are usually the ones that are most successful!
- Engage your peers. Online discussions are meant to be just that – discussions! Even if your professor doesn’t explicitly state that you need to respond to your peers, it’s essential that you do so. Otherwise, what you are really doing is posting your thoughts in a vacuum. If students aren’t reading each other’s posts and responding, then really, what was the point of posting? Ask questions to get your peers to respond to your post, and make sure that you return the favour! Get those discussions flowing.
- Don’t forget to edit. Just because an online discussion seems more informal, it doesn’t mean that spelling and grammar don’t matter. They do. It may be helpful to first type out your response in Microsoft Word, edit and revise, and then post it online.
- Have some fun, but be courteous. This may be one of the few opportunities you have in the academic world to play ‘devil’s advocate.’ Ask tough questions, make interesting comparisons and don’t be afraid to share your opinion. Just remember to always be courteous and constructive!
- Pay attention to what the facilitator is up to. Even if you haven’t, the facilitator will have consulted the course syllabus and the rubric and will most likely also be in communication with your professor. If the facilitator makes a suggestion or comment that indicates a response is necessary, they are most likely trying to indicate that you have not fulfilled the requirements. They are there to help you succeed, so don’t ignore their input!
Well there you have it – if you want to succeed in the online academic discussion world, these strategies are sure to help! And really, it might not hurt to extend some of these strategies to other online forums (I’m looking at you Reddit). As always, if you would like further guidance on how to approach online discussions or help with other assignments, you may book an appointment with the Centre for Student Success on the Brantford Campus by clicking here. We’d love to help you out!
Keep calm and carry on discussing,
Summer Peer Mentor
I have always loved to write. Whether it was academic writing or creative writing, from as far back as I can remember I have considered myself an avid writer – but that doesn’t mean that I’m great at writing. I still have much to learn, and over the past year I have tried to become more intentional about improving. When thinking about what I would write for my next blog post, it seemed natural that I would share some of my own personal strategies on how to become a better writer. Perhaps some of these strategies may be helpful for you, but if not that is okay too. I would love to read about your own methods in the comments below.
Okay, here we go:
- Read widely and often – I have found that the more I read, the more likely I am to pick up on the subtle and not-so-subtle elements that differentiate mediocre writing from excellent writing, while also enhancing my vocabulary. For example, it may seem simple but if I come across a word that I don’t know the meaning of, I look it up in the dictionary – giving myself the opportunity to use it myself in the future. Plus, I get to see how the word is used in the context of what I am reading.
- Don’t just read, also analyze – Aside from reading for pleasure, I also try to really think about the writer’s word choice, flow, structure, and arguments. What do I like about the writing? What don’t I like about it? What would I change if I could? I also try and pay close attention to the specific characteristics of the discipline or genre that the author is using. This helps me get a feel for the variations in writing style, vocabulary and method that may be used. Recently while reading a fantasy novel I found myself feeling bothered and bored by the story. I realized that the author was depending too much on describing past events rather than using dialogue and events in the present to further the plot. This style of writing ultimately resulted in me, as the reader, feeling like nothing was happening and I began losing interest. Now I know that when writing fiction it’s important to use dialogue, action and description in a balanced way! If I hadn’t taken the time to think about why the story was bothering me, I wouldn’t have been able to come to this conclusion.
- Just keep writing – Even if I don’t have an essay due or a blog post to write, it’s essential that I keep writing. I shouldn’t shy away from putting my own pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) as the more practice I get, the better I will become! One strategy that I’ve been trying is completing writing exercises. A simple one that I used recently was a descriptive exercise – I picked a setting or a recent event from my own life and wrote a detailed description of it, trying to employ all five senses in a realistic and logical way. Many of these kinds of exercises can be found online.
- Reread and edit – Whenever I write something, I don’t just pound it out and assume that it’s perfect. I reread what I have written multiple times and edit as I go. This means that as I am writing a particular paragraph, I may reread the paragraph itself 2 – 4 times as I write it, getting a sense of how each sentence fits in with the flow of the paragraph and the text as a whole. This allows me to simultaneously pay attention to the flow and structure of my work, as well as grammar and word choice. Editing this way also saves me from needing to make substantial changes to the text at the very end.
- Don’t just write, also analyze – Much the same as when I read and analyze the work of other authors, I also try to analyze my own writing. If I was reading this for the first time, what would I think? Would I understand? Would I want to change something? Would I need more information or details? If necessary, I will intentionally stay away from my work for a period of time, returning to it with a clear head and a fresh pair of eyes. I have also found it can be helpful to practice going over old essays or short stories with a critical eye!
- Ask for feedback – Sometimes I am too close to my writing, too involved in the process that it can be hard to clearly see my weaknesses or errors. It can be a humbling experience, but I have found that asking a peer or, if possible, a professor to provide feedback on a piece of my writing is invaluable. This may naturally happen as part of a course, but it can also be requested if appropriate. However, I’ve realized that the feedback of others will be useless to me if I do not plan on listening to it! I challenge myself to keep an open mind and to be willing to revise my writing.
Becoming a better writer may well be a lifelong process, but armed with these strategies I hope I can continue to improve. As always, if you would like help with a specific writing assignment you can book an appointment here at the Centre for Student Success on the Brantford campus. To book an appointment online, click here.
Summer Peer Mentor