Writing for Online Discussions

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This guide will explain how to tailor your academic writing skills for online class discussions.

Online discussion postings tend to be shorter in length and smaller in scope than many writing assignments, such as essays and research reports. But it is vital that each submission contain at least one main point and supporting evidence for that point. Part of the challenge of online discussion writing is getting your point across clearly in a relatively short amount of space.

What is my Instructor Looking for?

The purpose and assessment of online discussions will vary from course to course, so read your course outline and any instructions you are given very carefully. In general, however, instructors want students to:

Engage in the course material beyond passively reading and listening; interact with and learn from other students, think critically about course material, and consider issues from different perspectives

You may be familiar with online forums, social networking sites, and discussion groups where short forms and informal language are used. Keep in mind that within a course context, you will want to make sure your writing uses proper grammar and language.

Preparing to Write

1. Read the instructions CAREFULLY.

  • How often are you expected to post?
  • When are you expected to post? (Some courses have specific discussion windows)
  • How long should posts be?
  • Are you expected to provide external sources as evidence for your points? How should these be cited?

2. Read assigned material—critically—and take notes as you read:

  • Who wrote this material (a respected expert? an activist with a specific aim or belief?) Do they have any possible biases?
  • Are studies reliable and valid? (What kind of research was performed?)
  • When was this material written? Are the definitions/ conditions/ opinions described still accurate/ relevant?
  • Is an opinion expressed? How might someone disagree?
  • How does this material relate to other concepts and theories you are studying? (Remember, instructors choose readings with a plan in mind—try to imagine why they have assigned this reading)
  • Does the article complement other things you have learned? Is it in opposition?

3. Read and understand the discussion question or topic provided by your instructor.

  • What are you asked to do? (Formulate an opinion? Respond to a question? Explain a concept or theory?)
  • How are you asked to do this? What kind of information are you expected to include (e.g., supporting quotations or references, examples, etc.) Do you need to bring in outside research?

4. Sort out the finer details.

  • Is there a word maximum? Minimum? (Most posts will be 1-2 paragraphs maximum)
  • How many times are you expected to post? (Find out if you are required to post a certain number of times per question, per week, etc.)
  • How much of your grade is this component worth? Each post? Budget your time accordingly
  • Are you expected to respond to other students' posts? What proportion of original posts versus responses are you asked to provide?

Initial Posts

An initial post is a response to the original question presented by the course instructor, or the opening post on a particular topic (i.e., not responding to other students' posts). Consider each post a "mini- thesis," in which you state a position and provide support for it.

If you are responding to a question, be sure to

1. Answer the question:

Provide a clear answer to the question (incorporate some of the wording of the question in your answer if possible).

2. Give evidence:

Provide an explanation for your point of view, and use evidence from your text, notes, or outside research (where appropriate) to support your point.

3. Explain the connection:

Make sure to tell us how your evidence proves your point. Don't assume it's obvious.

Your post might also introduce a question or idea that others can follow up on. But make sure you have answered the initial question first!

Example:

Question: Does brain size matter?

Ari05: [1] In answer to the question "does brain size matter?" I would say yes. Several studies provide evidence demonstrating that there is a link between brain size and intelligence. [2] Witelson (1999) compared the size of Einstein's brain to that of other adult males and found that the parietal lobe—connected to logic and mathematical reasoning—was 15% larger than that of other men. [3]This is convincing because the part of the brain that was larger than normal was connected to Einstein's intellectual strengths (logic/reasoning), which we know were significantly greater than those of the average person. In addition, Salat (2004) used MRI scans to study the volume of different parts of the brain. He found that the size of cortical and hippocampal matter had a significant impact on adults' memory functions. [3] Both studies show that not only do specific parts of the brain impact certain functions, but the size of those parts impacts the quality of that functioning.

  • Salat, D. H. 2004. Thinning of the cerebral cortex in aging. Cerebral Cortex. 14: 721-730
  • Witelson,S.F. 1999.The exceptional brain of Albert Einstein. Lancet. 353: 2149-2153

[1] Claim/Answer to question
[2] Evidence
[3] Explanation of how evidence proves claim

Follow-up Posts (Responding to Others)

In terms of the dynamic of the "discussion" you may feel the desire to offer supportive comments to your peers.

In order to merit full grades from your instructor you must elaborate your posts with your own ideas. Explain why you agree, and offer your own supporting points and evidence. Think: "yes, AND…"

Again, make sure your post has the three parts mentioned earlier:

  1. Make a claim/Answer a question
  2. Give evidence
  3. Explain the connection

Example: 

Jesse34: [1][4] I agree with Ari—brain size does matter. [4][3] I wasn't totally convinced by the study of Einstein's brain, however, since it seemed like the research was done more out of personal interest (because it was Einstein) than in an attempt to establish a theory. [4][3] The approach of researchers in the MRI study Ari mentioned was much more convincing, because they compared several participants and looked at a specific function of the brain. There is also convincing evolutionary science that supports this belief. [2] Skoyles (1999) notes that the human brain has evolved to a larger size than that of its predecessor, homo erectus. He believes that the larger size is what allows humans to develop expertise over time. By expertise, he means skills and knowledge about how to perform vital activities, like hunting and gathering. [3] So, having a larger brain is not only linked to greater intelligence, but also to human survival. Skoyles, J.R. 1999. Human evolution expanded brains to increase expertise capacity, not IQ. Psycoloquy. 10. Retrieved Aug. 5, 2009, from http://cogprints.org/6348/1/Skoyles_Human_evolution_expanded_brains_expe... (002).

[1] Claim/Answer to question
[2] Evidence
[3] Explanation of how evidence proves claim
[4] Response to previous post

Online Discussion Dos and Don'ts

DO…

  • Login to the discussion regularly—not just when it's time to post. This way, the task of reading won't seem so overwhelming
  • Limit the length of your postings to a minimum of one short paragraph and a maximum of a half- page (depending on instructor's requirements)
  • Address the question at the start of your post (and avoid straying from the main point at hand)
  • Use information from the course notes and related texts to support your postings. Remember to properly cite these (with a page number, author's name, or more formally if you are required)
  • Use quotations with caution--only when the author's words are particularly memorable or when paraphrasing would diminish the impact of the quotation. Make sure you explain what quotations mean in the context of your argument. Whether you choose to quote or paraphrase, be sure to cite your sources
  • Think of the postings as a conversation (albeit a relatively formal one). Try to pick up on what others' have said when writing your posts
  • Show an open attitude by noting the other side of your argument
  • Use proper grammar and punctuation
  • Use subject lines strategically. Keep the subject line the same if you are responding to the same thread; if you are starting a new thread, use a descriptive subject line that encapsulates the topic/argument: e.g., How Darwin is still relevant e.g., Animal testing is only ethical in some circumstances e.g., Promoting environmentally-friendly behaviour Read your postings aloud before you post, to catch errors and typos

DON'T…

  • Don't post comments like "Great point" or "I agree," without explaining why you agree and providing new ideas or information to expand the previous author's point
  • Don't make all your postings in one day. A flurry of posts all at once doesn't make for good conversation. Give yourself time to think about the issues between posts, and consider what others have said. Good posts build on past discussion and open up new areas for debate
  • Don't respond emotionally to what others' have said. Wait until you feel you can respond without emotions clouding your judgment, and when you do reply, remember to respond to the ideas and argument, not the person

Example:

Dee11: [1][4] Although, as Ari and Jesse point out, there is a great deal of evidence to support the "bigger brains are better" claim, I find the evidence against this theory more convincing. Scientists studying the brain at the molecular level provide an important perspective on the question. [2] In particular, neuroscientist Paul Manger has argued that the organization of the brain and the activity at brain synapses plays more of a role than overall size (Manger, 1998). He believes that it is this organization that allows us to process information and form more complex thoughts. [2] This idea is supported by the research of Emes et al. (2008), who used genomic, proteomic and expression profiling to study postsynaptic proteins. Their findings suggest that all species have the same number of synaptic proteins— the difference is in how those proteins function. The development of higher levels of intelligence, according to Emes et al., has more to do with how these proteins are distributed and how they interact with each other (2008). [3][4] These arguments also help explain the evolution of the human brain over time, suggesting that we've adapted not by growing bigger brains (although that may also be true), but by developing more complex brains.

  • Manger, P. 1998. Modular subdivisions of dolphin insular cortex: does evolutionary history repeat itself? Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. 10:153-166
  • Emes et al. 2008. Evolutionary expansion and anatomical specialization of synapse proteome complexity. Nature Neuroscience. 11: 799 – 806

[1] Claim/Answer to question
[2] Evidence
[3] Explanation of how evidence

Netiquette

Offended by something you read? Don't fan the flames! Try to give others the benefit of the doubt. Most online disagreements are largely the result of misunderstanding the tone of messages. Some people are better at expressing themselves in type than others—and most people don't set out to be rude or offensive.

How to Respond to Argumentative Posts

  • Walk away before responding: If you feel yourself getting angry at something you read, either 1) give yourself some time before you respond (e.g., a few hours or overnight) or 2) don't respond to that particular thread
  • Even though you might have a point, an angry response will likely only fan the flames and, worse, make you look bad. Acknowledge the other point of view—don't discount it
  • Clarify how your view differs—make sure you offer something new here (don't just repeat yourself)
  • Remain open to new points of view

Example:

A CRINGEWORTHY POST:

Sarah's way off base here, unfortunately. The idea that antisocial behaviour usually emerges in adolescence because of a hormonal imbalance brought on by pubescent development is totally unsubstantiated, as the textbook clearly explains (Smith, 2009). Kevin is right when he posted about social environmental factors. I agree completely with Kevin.

A BETTER APPROACH:

I wanted to pick up on the discussion about hormonal imbalance as a possible cause of antisocial behaviour. I noticed that some of the researchers focus instead on biological factors, specifically genetic inheritance. Both Gene (2001) and De' Enay (2002) discuss the influence of genetics and dismiss research on hormonal influences in their respective meta-analyses. Gene's research showed that […] (2001). Based on this evidence, I would argue that genes rather than hormones seem to be the primary cause of antisocial behaviour.

Precise & Concise

  • Make sure your first sentence answers the discussion question or provides a clear reply to a post
  • Make sure each sentence is related to proving your point
  • Ask yourself: "Could I say this in fewer words?" (usually, the answer is yes)
  • Avoid overused phrases e.g. "Since the beginning of time…" "this is a 'win-win' situation because…"
  • Avoid words that don't say anything
    e.g. case, position, aspect
    e.g. interesting, kind of, sort of, type of, really, for all intents and purposes, actually
  • Avoid extra phrases and words
    Instead of…considering the fact — because; Instead of...in a situation which — when; Instead of...has the ability to — can; Instead of...in order to— to
  • Cut to the chase: Limit your use of "It is…" or "There are…"
    e.g. There are four ingredients that should be included — Four ingredients should be included
  • Keep your verbs as verbs:
    Perform a check of the perimeter — Check the perimeter

Say it once: Large in size — large; Heavy in weight — heavy; In a confused state — confused