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Discussion posts are a common assignment at Walden and many other universities. This month, Beth and Brittany chat with writing instructor and contributing faculty member Hillary about the purpose of the discussion board and how to be an effective participant.
HILLARY: Being an effective participant on the discussion board is all about curiosity, and I think that same idea can translate well into being an effective writer.
BETH: Welcome to WriteCast: A Casual Conversation for Serious Writers. I’m Beth Nastachowski,
BRITTANY: and I’m Brittany Kallman Arneson.
BETH: Today we are talking about discussion posts with writing instructor Hillary Wentworth.
BRITTANY: We are so excited to have Hillary here this morning to talk about discussion posts. Hillary is a veteran of the Writing Center and has a wealth of knowledge about writing instruction and truly is one of the most skilled and empathetic writing instructors that I know. And Hillary also has the unique perspective of being coordinator of CAEX faculty development in the Academic Skills Center, so I’m really excited that she has agreed to join us today. Hi, Hillary!
HILLARY: Hi, Brittany. Thanks.
BRITTANY: So, you want to just talk to us quickly about your work in the Writing Center and also your work as a CAEX instructor here at Walden?
HILLARY: Yes, I have worked in the Writing Center for about five years, and I work one-on-one with students to improve their writing, and I do that through paper reviews, but also webinars and my first debut podcast today. I’ve been working as a faculty member in the Center for Academic Excellence, so teaching some graduate-level writing courses, and in that role I’ve thought about discussion posts a lot, so this is a perfect venue for me to talk a little bit about what discussion posts mean and how we can use those better in this online environment.
BETH: So, in talking about discussion posts today we want to focus more on the actual conversation that students are supposed to be having in their discussion boards in their various classrooms. We have many, many resources about discussion posts on our website, and on our blog, and in our webinars. And so I encourage you to take a look at those if you are looking for more information about the actual writing of a discussion post. But today we want to broaden the conversation a little bit, like you know we like to do, and we are going to talk a little bit more about the actual discussion board and engaging with the discussion board itself.
BRITTANY: Yeah, and I want to just add this quick caveat: These are our views as instructors for writing courses, so of course you are going to want to follow the preferences of your instructors for your individual courses in your program.
BETH: So, the purpose of the discussion board is really to help students engage with the content of that week’s course assignment, oftentimes, or most of the time, the discussion posts that you are asked to write should relate to the content of the course and that week’s particular focus, topic, learning objectives, those sorts of things. But it also is an opportunity for you to engage with your instructor, as well as your other classmates in that course.
HILLARY: You’re right, Beth, and I think a lot of students get caught up in the individual tasks of a course, perhaps. Seeing what I have to do for each week, maybe I have to read such and such text, I have to respond to the discussion board, I have to write an assignment. But they are not seeing exactly how all those components fit together. And I think it’s great to look at those weekly objectives and see how those play out in each of the activities throughout the week. The discussion board can really be a place for you to process information. So that weekly theme and those resources that you are reading, what do those mean, and what is my perspective on those resources?
BRITTANY: I think that’s such a good point, Hillary, that the purpose of the discussion board isn’t just another box to check off, another sort of thing to get done and move on. But it’s actually like, really in an online environment, it’s the way that you engage in conversation with your classmates and your instructor, right? We’re not sitting down in a classroom physically with each other, and so this is our environment, this is our place to talk about the topics that are being assigned for that week. And I think that that is something important to keep in mind.
BETH: And if you look at the way the discussion board assignment is set up, it even emphasizes or tries to help facilitate that conversational approach. So you’re posting by mid-week for most of your classes so that then you are able to respond to your classmates’ posts, and those deadlines are set up in a way to facilitate the sort of conversational purpose of the discussion board.
HILLARY: Right. And I think we should also note that the discussion posts and the initial response of the discussion post is due usually on day three or day five and then the assignment is due on day seven, so the discussion posts can be seen as a building block to that later weekly assignment, which is probably a more in-depth examination of the topics for that week. So, really as you are conversing with students, you are also building your own writing skills. If we can tie it back to writing a little bit, you’re building your own writing skills, and then kind of practicing for that larger assignment later in the week.
BETH: And I think this is something that you and I have talked about a lot, Brittany, is writing as thinking. I think we’ve mentioned it a couple of times in the podcast, but I’m sure we’ve talked about it many more times just you and I. And I think building on that, Hillary, we can see that the discussion board as a place where you are putting your thoughts down and writing them down, as a place to explore your thinking as well, and it really is one of those earlier stages of writing as thinking.
BRITTANY: Yeah, I think that’s so, I mean, we do talk about that a lot, but I think in this particular setting, the discussion board setting, it’s especially true because it is a more informal place to sort of practice writing down those ideas and explore ways to articulate those ideas. Whereas, you know, when you are working on a more formal paper or a longer document, of course you are able to go through the process of thinking on paper, but you are going to then go back and polish and do a lot more revision, whereas the discussion post is really a place to kind of not have to worry so much about the polish aspect of it, right? That’s really one of the reasons why I think it’s important that a good discussion environment feel like a really safe place for students. Right? A place where they are not going to be judged on, you know, a nitpicky grammar detail.
HILLARY: That idea of a safe place to practice and develop our own ideas is really important. I think something that muddies the waters a little bit with that idea of practicing is this idea of public versus private space. So the discussion board is a public space where you are engaging with peers and trusting them to read through your work and treat it respectfully.
BETH: I’m sure everyone listening to the podcast has seen a good discussion board or a place where that safe environment has been present. But also the discussion board where there’s been more of a nit-picky approach, and I think we can agree that when we have that safe environment and there’s sort of a collaborative approach to a conversation on the discussion board rather than focusing on, you know, pointing out errors or disagreements without real discussion, that those are the most sort of fruitful discussion boards for helping us think through ideas and work through the course content.
HILLARY: In writing courses, like the courses I teach, of course there is a focus on the writing of the discussion post, the grammar and whatnot. Students who are especially new to the online environment might be self-conscious about that public representation of themselves, that you are only writing, basically, you’re not a face or a voice or anything, you’re just your writing. And ways that we can be sensitive to students in that regard are not picking out those little grammar errors and writing problems that students have and looking a little bit deeper into what is the student actually saying here, and how can I engage with those ideas?
I had a student actually e-mail me in one of my courses and say, “You know, I’ve noticed that one of my peers really struggles with grammar. I can tell that from her posts. And I’m wondering, should I, you know, say that I’ve been to the Writing Center, and the Writing Center really helps with issues like that.” And I responded to her that, no, you know, really you should be engaging with the student’s content, the ideas, whatever we’re working through that particular week. And it’s my job as the faculty member in my feedback to her discussion posts, I should bring that up as an area for improvement for this student. But it really shouldn’t be up to the colleagues on the discussion board to point out those things. One way that you can help students who, clearly writing is not their forte, you could be a model for them in your own work, so making sure that you cite sources appropriately, that you check your grammar, that you write clear paragraphs.
BETH: So I think that one of the things that both of you, both Hillary and Brittany are talking about here is really focusing on ideas when you are talking or responding to colleagues in the discussion board. Really focusing on ideas, rather than the writing. While clearly the writing is important, your instructor will sort of make sure to address any concerns there or give feedback on that writing. So focus on ideas and that will help make that discussion board focus on the actual conversation and help the discussion board, I think, be what it is supposed to be, be that conversation.
BRITTANY: I like that idea, in general, and I also think it’s a really nice way for students to be able to kind of take ownership of their ideas and feel proud of them because they are, they’re not just going through the motions, they’re putting them out there so that their fellow students can read and learn from them.
BETH: So now, we’re going to talk a little bit more about our suggestions for making sure that you do have that conversation in the discussion board and how to facilitate that as best as possible. So, the first suggestion that I have is to post on time and post as early as possible. We realize students are busy; you just completed the last week, and already on Monday you have another week’s assignments to do. But the more that you can really start on that discussion board and post your discussion post early will help facilitate that discussion and allow other people time to engage with and respond to your ideas.
HILLARY: Also, another tip is to post on multiple days and return to read other people’s responses. So, sometimes in my courses I notice that students maybe will just enter into the discussion board on Wednesday night, late, and they will post their initial response and respond to two colleagues at the same time. And then I won’t hear from them again throughout that whole week, so they are not really listening to the rest of that conversation, right? They are just putting information out there, so I would say kind of try to dole out your time. I know it’s hard with your busy lives to devote extra time each night to returning to that discussion board, but that will facilitate your learning and your interaction with your peers, building this positive, engaged community.
BRITTANY: Another thing I would suggest, and Hillary you are welcome to chime in here, of course, too, because you are seeing these responses more than I am, I feel like a lot of times, when the student is being asked to respond to other students’ posts, the easy way is to just say either I agree or I disagree with your post, right, rather than really engaging with those ideas and writing a little bit more about your response to, to the student’s post. Is that something that you see in your discussion boards?
HILLARY: Yes, definitely. And I think an easy jump up from that is if you are thinking initially, yes, I agree with this post, I have a reaction to it, I want to respond to it, ask yourself why do I agree? What about this post makes me agree with it? And maybe you need to take some time to return to the resources or to read through the posts again, jot some notes down to yourself to explain why.
I would also say that agreeing for agreeing’s sake is a little bit easy, taking the easy route, and I would challenge you to put your neck out there and disagree with someone. Share a different perspective, or find an idea in their post that’s not fully developed and kind of dig in there and ask more questions.
BETH: Yeah, Hillary, what I was thinking about when you were talking was this idea of the discussion posts being a safe space, and it’s a safe space to explore your own ideas, but also a safe place to engage with other people’s ideas. As long as you are doing so in a way that is productive and instructive, as well. You’re not just disagreeing with someone or agreeing with someone just for that sake. You’re talking about how you can explore ideas in a deeper and more meaningful way.
BRITTANY: The other thing I would say, too, is, you know, if you see this richer conversation happening on the discussion board and you see those questions coming out, and particularly if they are directed at you, be sure to respond. You know, sort of build on that.
HILLARY: Yeah, so we’re talking about being a good participant. Keep tabs on who is reading your posts and if they have asked any questions, especially if they’ve called you out by name.
BRITTANY: Right, and I think just to make sure that the conversation, you know, that you are acknowledging that it is a conversation, and you’re trying to create that conversational atmosphere that we’re aiming for in discussion boards, right? So not just, again, I sound like a broken record, but not just going in and posting one thing and then leaving, which is kind of akin to, you know, walking into a room and saying one sentence and then walking out again and never coming back, right? It is important to stay engaged throughout the entirety of the conversation. And that includes, of course, responding to people’s questions, rather than just sort of sitting in virtual silence and not acknowledging them.
BETH: Yeah, I mean imagine you were in a classroom, and someone asked you a follow-up question to something you were saying, and then you just stared at that person, or looked away. I know that might seem a little weird because maybe that wouldn’t happen in person, but it also probably shouldn’t happen online because it’s sort of similar. If I’ve asked someone a question online, I kind of would want to see an answer. Otherwise, I’m not really sure if the person didn’t understand my question or is ignoring it or what. So I agree with everything you both are saying here.
HILLARY: I’d love for students to think about the responses to their colleagues having equal weight to that main post. I’d love for them to put as much effort into those responses because, again, that’s what keeps the conversation going. That’s what helps us dig deeper into the content.
HILLARY: I also challenge students to reply to different people in the classroom. I think sometimes from week to week we latch on to one other individual, a buddy in our class who, maybe we completely agree or we’re at the same level in terms of our schooling, and so we always respond to them. And so we find ourselves responding to them quite a bit and having, maybe even, a private conversation on this public space. And this could be seen as another easy way to approach the discussion board, is to just latch onto one person. But widen that conversation. Look for other students who, maybe they haven’t gotten a lot of replies in the past, and you want to bring them more deeply into the conversation. This is another way that you can be a good facilitator as a student.
HILLARY: Being an effective participant on the discussion board is all about curiosity, and I think that same idea can translate well into being an effective writer. As a writer, we’re curious about ideas. We read. We investigate. We share that information, and so we’re curious about our topic.
BRITTANY: Thank you so much to Hillary Wentworth for joining us for this episode. Hillary, it was really fun to have you with us.
BETH: Thank you, Hillary.
HILLARY: Thank you. It was so much fun.
BRITTANY: So if you, dear listeners, are curious about this topic, and you’d like to learn more, the best place to go to find all of our resources on discussion posts compiled for you is the search box on our website. And our website is academicguides.waldenu.edu/writingcenter. So you can use our search box or the Quick Answers search box there to find out more, and we strongly encourage you to check out our other resources on discussion posts. And we hope you will all join us next time for our next episode.
WriteCast is a production of the Walden University Writing Center. This episode was produced by me, Brittany Kallman Arneson; my co-host, Beth Nastachowski; and our colleague, Anne Shiell.
Visit the Writing Center's website to learn more about the WriteCast podcast, including how to subscribe.