Engaging in Online Discussions: Top 10 Tips for Students
21st July 2020
Here at Queen’s, you may be asked to participate in online discussions as part of your course of study. In online discussion areas, you are encouraged to contribute to conversations and not just lurk. Full participation presents an opportunity for you to clarify points, elaborate further, and learn from your peers. If you share your thoughts, your confidence as a digital learner will start to grow and you will enjoy the online learning experience much more.
Online discussions may include:
An introductory discussion
Discussions may take place synchronously (in real-time) or asynchronously (without real-time interaction).
Synchronous discussion is more fixed in that it is usually scheduled by the lecturer to occur at a certain time. It can take place in a designated discussion area or perhaps in the comments section of a live webinar. Whereas asynchronous discussion is much more flexible, allowing interaction but not requiring everyone to be online at the same time. For example, your lecturer may set a class discussion that remains open for a week, or one that remains open for the entire duration of a module.
First and foremost, you will take direction from your lecturer who is likely to provide you with more specific guidance and ‘house rules’ for the online discussions on their module. Even with this guidance in mind, the following list of more general tips has been created to help support you in getting the most out of online discussions.
1. Craft your response
Take your time and think about how you are going to respond to a discussion prompt. A well-crafted and thorough response is worth more than an ill-considered and hurried one. As a general rule, aim for postings that are concise, clear, and purposeful. Unless it has been requested otherwise, it is advisable to address only one or two main points in one post and no more, as this risks confusing the reader or redirecting the conversation prematurely.
2. Add a title to your post
Adding a title or subject line which contains keywords from the content to follow, will help your peers to quickly recognise what your post is about. It will also help individuals to quickly find or refer back to your post as more are added to the discussion, or when they come to revise a particular topic at a later stage.
3. Give examples
Apply course content to real-life examples or observations you may have. The ability to connect and apply what you learn to real-life situations is vitally important. This will demonstrate your learning; helping you (and others) to more closely associate the practical value of learning more theoretical concepts, or to reframe and think about the topic of learning in a slightly different way. The applicability of concepts to real-life scenarios is, of course, dependent on the topic and context, but where possible it is encouraged.
4. Signpost resources and reference
A post to a discussion forum may not necessitate the same depth as an academic essay, but in the context of online learning, your response should remain scholarly in tone and focus. Ground your thoughts and arguments in evidence — cite authors who support your claims, bring additional research into the discussion, and signpost resources that helped you arrive at your viewpoint. This not only adds value to the discussion but provides others with something to respond to, moving the discussion forward.
5. Encourage further discussion
Open up the conversation and ask probing questions of your peers. For example:
“Please could you clarify your thinking on…?”
“I would like to hear your ideas on…”
“I am interested in what evidence there is to support this. Can you share with us?”
“What are the implications of this?”
“How might that be addressed?”
“What indicators/measures/criteria are you using to support your analysis?”
Point out things you found interesting about your peers’ contributions, answer their queries and follow up with your own thoughts. Ignite debate and feel free to agree or disagree with the views presented. Differing perspectives are a good thing and help clarify others’ thinking, but always be respectful — offer thoughtful and informed contributions. Be open to new ideas and the possibility that your peers may reshape your thoughts and perspectives through discussion.
The Queen’s Guide to Digital Etiquette (which can also be viewed on page 2 of this blog) is one of the key pieces of guidance that students at Queen’s are provided with to participate fully and safely in any of their digital environments. It will help you to avoid some of the common pitfalls of online communication and discussions.
6. Be patient
When awaiting a reply in synchronous discussions, afford your peers sufficient time to craft their answers, and be patient with them. Online discussion does not always occur instantaneously, for some, it takes time to make a considered response and be aware that English may not be the first language of all other students in your class. In real-time your classmate or indeed your lecturer, may have been interrupted, they may have a child to care for, or unreliable Wi-Fi to contend with — be mindful of this. In asynchronous discussions, your peers have been afforded a set time window and greater flexibility in responding but still be patient, and don’t be afraid to be the first to post and lead the way to some good discussion.
7. Incorporate multimedia
Huge blocks of text in discussion forums can be overwhelming at times. On occasion, you may opt to use alternate forms of expression. You can supplement your responses with an image or video that supports your thoughts or ideas (crediting the source of course!). Add voice notes where appropriate, draw a picture or diagram to illustrate your point… think outside the box and flex your digital skills!
When integrating multimedia, it is good practice to ensure accessibility by adding captions and descriptions/alt-text to images and provide captions or transcripts for any audio that you create yourself. Remember that any content which is not your own should be cited in compliance with copyright law.
Some learners may lurk in discussion forums because they are not confident in online settings. Help to create an online community of learners by asking others what they think, to bring them into the conversation — support, and encourage them. Everyone has a point of view and something worth saying, and in most cases, your view will resonate with some of your peers. There is a collective responsibility to create a safe and respectful environment to empower your fellow learners to contribute to the discussion and grow in confidence.
9. Ask your lecturer
Your lecturer will be moderating discussions, and may even set up a dedicated question-and-answer discussion area. Take advantage of this opportunity to avail of their knowledge and expertise. Ask them questions and seek their guidance when you don’t understand. Again, be patient, and appreciate that your lecturer is not obligated to check discussion areas every hour, on the hour. They have competing demands on their time and may have their own set time for replying to queries. Sit tight and they will get back to you when they can.
10. Connect, learn and have fun
Online discussions present a wonderful opportunity to bounce ideas off others, form connections with your peers, and collaboratively build knowledge — embrace the journey and enjoy yourself.