Q&A: How Can I Make the Most of Online Discussion Groups?

As part of the online class for a master's degree that I am taking, we are required to make two discussion posts a week and respond to two posts for each as well. The instructions are to add something new when responding to a post. However, the majority of comments that are posted reflect comments back to the writer (along the lines of "I agree with what you said. It is important …") but don't add anything new. I find it extremely hard to make a response to one of these. As well, I'm paying for the class and expect quality discussion. It's important for me for learning. Is there anything I can do or am I stuck?

Answer: This is a great question. It really reflects a desire to learn. There are definitely some things you can try. First, focus on the initial posts made by your peers. Don't try to build on a post that says, "I agree!" The best you can say about those is they are well-meant… we hope. Instead, focus on the initial posts themselves. If the class has the basics of good design, there should be some substance there. When you do, you can start by being encouraging, but if you do, be specific. You'll find substance in specificity. So, examine the reasoning in peer posts. How did they make their points?

Examine the writing in your peers' posts. Even if this isn't a writing class, looking closely at how someone makes points and organizes data is useful. Next, look at the connection between the posts and the course material. Identify it, articulate it, and analyze it. If you still have time, question it. This would mean looking back and forth between the original post and the course objectives and the textbook. What did your peer see? How did he/she interpret core concepts? Is there something you don't understand? Ask about that.

Take a step back. Take two, three, or four posts together, and look for patterns. What are your classmates doing as a group with the course material? Imagine you're in an anthropology course, and everyone chose the same culture to discuss. This gives you material to compare, but also fuel to ask why students chose this same culture. Finally, you can also address the question from the other end. Share your intense desire to learn with your instructor in a private message, and ask for help generating more substantial engagement in discussion. All good instructors would love that level of engagement.

Greg BeattyGreg Beatty has a PhD in English from the University of Iowa and over twenty years experience in higher education. He’s taught everything from standardized test prep courses and freshman orientation and composition courses on up to serving on doctoral committees. He’s taught in the traditional classroom, correspondence courses, online courses, and hybrid courses. He’s developed curriculum for several colleges (sometimes as sole author, sometimes working collaboratively), and served as a textbook manuscript reviewer for Longman. He’s won grants for course development, and awards for his teaching. Greg has mentored new teachers and co-taught workshops on teaching excellence. He’s also served on a range of committees and college advisory boards, and has served as an area chair for humanities.