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Why Are My Students' Discussion Posts So Lousy!?

The Learning Blend

“Why are my students' discussion posts so lousy!?”

This is a question many teachers ask after experimenting with blogs or discussion boards for the first time. How many of us have been confounded as we pore over a page full of short superficial posts with empty responses like "I agree," or "cool!," or "lol?"

Conversely, how many of us have taken blended or online college courses in which we groaned about participating in an online discussion board where the professor asks us to summarize the reading, highlight a passage we found interesting, or ask a question about the reading.

Our troubles as teachers of students making vapid posts and graduate students trudging through online courses are flip sides of the same coin--poor instructional design. I don't mean this to be harsh. These are new tools, and some early struggles are natural. But how do we take the next step? How can we plan for better online discussions? We need to examine these tools, identify their traits, and then match them to proper instructional purposes.

Obviously, Web 2.0 tools are about sharing and conversation. Too often, we cram them into a class as an obligatory bell/whistle. As with all instructional technology, it is crucial that we match the right tool to the job and use the best practices that work elsewhere. Why do we use discussion posts at all?

The advantage of an online discussion is that it is a place where other students can see your work. This is a crucial element. To make a posting activity worthwhile, each student needs to have a unique offering. For example, “What did you find interesting about the reading?” is not a great prompt, because, after several students post, it becomes forced to try and find something no one else has said. Even worse, once you’ve identified an “interesting thing,” what do you do with that? Everyone in the class read the same passage, so simply identifying it is a waste of everyone’s time.

So, a good prompt addresses this by being open-ended and specifically inviting each student to utilize his or her unique experiences. So, to ensure that your prompt actually solicits students’ unique perspectives, include one of these three elements:

  • opinion on a divisive matter
  • creative free reign
  • connections with personal experience

Conveniently, those three items match higher orders of thinking on Bloom’s Taxonomy (evaluation, synthesis, and analysis respectively).

So, the prompt needs to solicit higher-order thinking in an open-ended manner in order for students’ posts to actually be different. But difference isn’t enough to make it worthwhile for students to actually see each other’s posts. I hate when I’m forced to respond to other people’s posts when there’s no value in them for me. So that leads us to the third essential element of a good post prompt: meaningful collaboration. The posts should be valuable (as examples of difficult concepts, pieces of a larger project, or examples of perspectives on a divisive issue) or entertaining. The best prompts produce posts whose value is self-evident.

From this thought process, we can create an essential three point checklist for effective discussion prompt writing:

In subsequent blog posts, I will address each of these three pieces including specific instructional examples. You can jump to a later post in the series by clicking the links in the list above this paragraph. I hope that this article will give you some food for thought in writing effective prompts for your classroom!

Click here to read the next article in the series


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Comment by Terry Morriston on February 21, 2012 at 2:06pm


Your post is timely, succinct and helpful. Most of our teachers begin their online training by learning the LMS but soon need guidance and tips for online teaching.  Thanks for contributing to that second phase.

Comment by Dan Lucas on February 21, 2012 at 9:01pm

Thanks for your comment, Terry! I hope to do more of this sort of thing in the future. There's a lot of material out there, as you pointed out, explaining the basics of where to point and what to click, but I hope to focus more on that next step of pointing and clicking to good effect.


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