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January 23 2007 (Refreshed July 5, 2012)

e-Coaching Tip 33: What Makes a Good Discussion Post?

In Tip 32: Steps in Building a Course Community, we talked about building a community of learners within a course, and some of the behaviors by faculty and students that support the development of a learning community. This tip focuses on how discussion forums that encourage connections and collaboration also support community building.

Discussion Boards is Where Community Happens

The question for this week’s tip is what makes a good discussion post. As has been suggested in other tips, the discussion forum is equivalent to the face-to-face discussion time in a live classroom or seminar gathering. The discussion forum is a premier online tool for connecting to each other socially and cognitively. The discussion forum is where we express what we know and why, what we don’t know and occasionally what we wish we knew. The discussion forum might be compared to a town square where everyone gathers and where community happens.

One of the authors of the Community of Inquiry model, D. Randy Garrison of the University of Calgary, has observed that a key advantage of online learning is that the interaction pattern of online courses tends to be “group-centered” rather than “authority-centered.” This observation encourages thinking of course behaviors at the unit of groups rather than individuals. In other words, we want to supplement learner-centered teaching with group-centered teaching and occasionally focus attention on how the group as a whole is moving towards key understandings.

Individual learners, of course, have important roles in community as was suggested in Brown’s (2001) study. The individual has responsibility to  “make the group and the learning happen” by each individual’s (1) embracing the content that is brought to the course, (2) integrating with their own knowledge, and then (3) creating and contributing ideas in a process of knowledge creation and discovery. Community depends on each of the learners fulfilling these responsibilities.

Shift from Turn-taking to Reflective and Developed Conversation

Another observation by Garrison is that asynchronous online discussions allow time for reflection and can usefully shift groups away from the frantic “turn-taking atmosphere” that often characterizes classroom discussions. Thoughtful posts and responses to posts can build on the thoughts and knowledge that the learners bring to the conversation. It is this type of discussion post, thoughtful and reflective and building on what others have expressed or inquired about that makes for good discussion posts. It is these types of posts that create sustained conversation about important ideas.

Does this happen naturally? I don’t think so. As with most new types of communication, effective use of tools requires practice and analysis. Also, how many of us know how to have sustained conversation, responding to and building on other’s thoughts when we are face to face? How do we then encourage students to not just “post “ what they believe, but to read and “hear” what a fellow student is saying and to integrate those thoughts with their existing thoughts and mental models?  

This may mean that a faculty member needs to not only observe, monitor and comment, but to model and describe the process of how the content is being taken in, absorbed and integrated. This may be an elusive goal for many of us. So what is the answer?

Here are two suggestions for encouraging discussion posts that support sustained conversation and more community thinking.

1. Three Part Post — What, Why and What I Wish I Knew

When you have posted an open-ended question that asks students for their recommendations and ideas about a particular problem, challenge, idea, encourage them to create postings with these three parts.

    • Part 1: State what your considered thought or recommendation might be. In other words, answer the question,  “What do you think? “ 
    • Part 2: State why you think what you think. This is a good place for learners to dig inside their heads, their experiences, their beliefs. It is also a good place for learners to provide references and links to experts, events, or belief statements that share and support their thinking.
    • Part 3: State what you wish you knew or what problem, challenge will follow or result from the original question.
2. Characteristics of Quality Online Discussion Posting or Message

We often are ambivalent about how strict we ought to be about guiding learners in their posting behaviors. At the same time discussion posts are a reflection of our knowledge and thoughts. Discussion posts are a valuable tool for getting a sense of where students are in their understanding and connecting of key concepts.

Here is a set of recommended characteristics adapted from a site at St. John’s University (NY). You may want to use this list as a checklist for your own requirements and guidelines for students.

    • Substantial: Messages should relate to the subject matter and provide information, opinions or questions about that subject matter.
    • Concise: Studies have shown that messages that are several screens long do not get many replies. The point of your message should be clear.
    • Provocative: A good message is one that prompts others to reply or object.
    • Explanatory: A good message explores, explains, or expands on a concept or connection.
    • Timely: A good member of the learning community gets on regularly and replies to messages in a timely fashion.
    • Logical: A good message should contain a clearly stated conclusion of thesis supported by premises, reason, evidence or grounds of belief.
    • Grammatical: A good, clear, concise message should be well written and free of typos and sentence fragments.

References

Garrison, D. R. (2006). Online collaboration principles. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks 10(1). Retrieved July 5 2012 from http://sloanconsortium.org/jaln/v10n1/online-collaboration-principles.

Quality Online Messages. Characteristics of a Quality Online Discussion Posting or Message. Retrieved July 5 2012 from http://www.stjohns.edu/media/3/c84d5c3eb0f54c19baba0ba5e59af116.pdf


Note: These E-coaching tips were initially developed for faculty in the School of Leadership & Professional Advancement at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. This library of tips has been organized and updated through 2010 in a book, The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips coauthored with Rita Marie Conrad. Judith can be reached judith followed by designingforlearning.org.

E-Coaching Tip 33: What Makes a Good Discussion Post?

 

 

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Revised May 20 2013
Copyright Judith V. Boettcher, 1997-2013