Tips on how to write a great discussion board post in an online college course

If are taking an online class, you probably know that the discussion posting plays an important role. The forum is where you and your fellow students get the chance to exchange information, reflect on the course's readings, even complete one part of an assignment. You will also notice that forum write-ups count for marks. In the courses I've taken, they have comprised from 14-25 percent. So, how can you write a great posting that will help you ace the course?

Be clear on the purpose of the discussion posting

Discussion postings serve different purposes. Some professors use them to ensure you keep up with the readings. Some use them as a starting spot for a larger assignment. Perhaps the most important purpose of the forums is interaction and critical discussion, after all, you are not going to class. Interaction with all the course participants is one of the most important factors that will help you create your learning experience. Your professor will usually provide instructions for each exchange, so be sure you are clear on what is expected.

Do your homework

To create a rich forum post in a course, do your homework or buy essays. An academic forum is different than a public forum and not meant for random verbal sputtering. Do the readings associated with the forum. No one likes to read "whipped air". You will be expected to think critically on the prompts, and post intelligently (just remember you're being marked). 

Read your professor's discussion posting directions carefully

Failure to follow the instructions will cost you marks. In fact, not reading assignment instructions is the single biggest factor that trips my students. You may find you're excited by the prompt questions, and figure that expressing yourself is all that's required, so you jump right in. Try to hold back. 

Just what exactly are you being asked to reflect on? Usually your professor will have a series of questions for you to contemplate. I ask my students to answer a question or two about a reading and about whether or not they agree with it and why? I also ask them to respond to at least one other student. The response part should be natural, once you see others starting to share their own perspectives. If you are engaged in the material, you will have what to say too.

Gather your thougths

Think about what you want to say to your professor and classmates, and keep your posting focused and relevant. You can write a pithy, critical and relevant comment that makes the connection between theory and practice in a few short paragraphs. Trust me, people don't like reading large wads of type on the screen. If you are not sure what to focus on, write to your professor.

Cite your sources

References matter in a discussion posting. They inform the reader of your academic integrity, and where you're coming from and they give the reader the option to follow up and explore your research. I have found the sources of other classmates in an online course immensely useful. This is one of the beauties of learning online. All refereneces, resources and links your fellow classmates post are archived for future reference.In the college courses I teach, I don't insist that students use formal documentation in a discussion posting (but emphasize that it's important to tell the rest of us where the information is from). In my graduate studies, we had stricter standards and documented all discussion postings in APA format.

Compose your response

Many discussion forums have text editors that enable you to write out your response on the spot. Sometimes, writing in a word-processor such as Word, and then copying into the course forum can help. word, generally has more features and is easier to manipulate. Try to incorporate some light formatting such as bolding, underlining and bullets to ensure your text is screen-friendly. Also, use short paragraphs and white space, and don't forget to use the spell checker!

Follow the forum rules and post on time

Most courses have certain rules for posting, such as respecting individual viewpoints, not levelling personal attacks on others or publicly embarrassing anyone. I also tell my students not to correct the spelling and grammar of others. Some professors will tell you how to respond to others or have a complete FAQ in the course syllabus.

When responding to others, selecting a piece of writing that you resonate with is a good start. Adding comments from your experience or other reading is a good strategy. Another is to agree or disagree with the point and state why. It is good academic practice not to accept any posting at face value, but to think critically. Perhaps you could even respond by asking the student a question about his/her posting. Think about what you would do if you were in a live discussion. If you wanted to make a point or respond to another classmate how would you do it?Also, post on time to keep your learning relevant, and to contribute to the learning of others. There's nothing worse than reading a stray posting, two weeks after the unit has finished. Your professor will notice. Its like handing in your homework late.

Post meaningfully and authentically 

Sometimes my students will give a brief "Yup, I agree". This isn't good enough. As I mentioned before, state why you agree to add dimension to your discussion. Did you read something, did you have an experience that illustrates the point the other write made? It's OK to be authentic and cull from your life experience if it helps you make the point. Remember, this is an academic forum and you are being graded on the quality of your postings. Pixelating the page randomly is not good enough. Always keep your postings relevant to the course content.

Here are some of the things professors can look for when evaluating your postings (this based on criteria from a course I took in an online Masters at Athabasca University):

  • engagement and commitment;

  • evidence of wide reading;

  • capacity for intellectual reasoning, and openness to new ideas;

  • ability to synthesise thinking and to link theory and empirical findings to practice;

  • efficient communication skills.

To sum up


The lines between classroom and online post secondary instruction are blurring, and sooner or later you will find yourself in the electronic classroom, and that inevitably means you'll be encountering the discussion forum as part of your course. To make the most of your learning, and to get the best grade, do your readings and participate meaningfully and intelligently. You will find that you will have a good learning experience, maybe even get an A in the course.