An integral part of nearly all online classes is the threaded discussion—it is where students interact on a nearly daily basis, posting their thoughts and information on main discussion topics, your postings, and the postings of other students. While you have measured control over the content, length, and tone of student postings, you have full control over your own.
To ensure that your responses to student postings in discussion are effective, incorporate the following ideas:
The umbrella fact for all your responses: everyone in the class can read your postings. Each time we respond to a student posting we are also posting to the whole class—and your words will remain “alive” for the entirety of the course. Always have your postings reflect a professional and dedicated instructor, be certain any facts and course information are in sync with what is included in the course (including textbook and other class resources), and use your postings to reinforce important course lessons and to motivate students.
Be a model of what you require of students in their postings. You no doubt require that the majority of student postings be substantive in nature, and thus so should yours. Never berate a student/the class or write in a negative tone. If additional information of a more specific nature is needed in response to a student posting, offer a general response in the discussion and send a private email or posting to the student. Always be upbeat. Students look to you for guidance, and the discussion is where you are most visible; it is there that you can have the greatest impact on the students.
Don’t be afraid to let personality and humor enter your responses. Because we are using written words, not spoken ones, the facial expressions, tone, and gestures that make our spoken words take on defined meanings are missing in the online classroom. Certainly, punctuation serves this function to some extent—but injecting large doses of an upbeat personality and some occasional humor helps engage the class, creates a stronger student-instructor rapport, and helps students stay more involved in the discussion.
While your response will be to one student, always include the whole class. As most people in the class, if not everyone, will be reading your response to a student posting, be sure you include the entire class. This might be done in several ways, but here are two: “Cathy—and everyone in the class—the example mentioned of …” or “Class, what Cathy pointed out in this posting reminds us…” Each of these gives recognition to the student’s posting—crucial in letting the students know that you read each post, and to establishing a stronger individual student-instructor rapport. This also lets the class know that your response to the student is not limited to the student but is information for all.
When applicable, use examples or experiences from your life in responding. Students enjoy peeking into the lives of their instructors. Offering bits and pieces of your life outside of class will certainly make you more approachable—but be sure you use your life experiences and situations for the benefit of underscoring, highlighting, and reinforcing lessons of the course.
Use your responses as opportunities to further involvement in class discussion. Some of your responses may simply be statements, and that’s fine—but remember that statements by an instructor in a discussion have a 50-50 shot of getting students to respond to them; you are hoping that the subject and tone of your post will encourage students to respond—which makes for the ideal discussion. However, if you end your responses with a question to the class, this almost ensures student responses to your posting: many students will want to show their involvement (partially to receive a good discussion grade!), and it is human nature to respond to a question.
Create a bank of the best responses that you post for reuse in future classes. As you respond to student discussion postings you will find that some of your substantive responses are really good—so good you’d like to use them for another class! There is nothing wrong with this—create an online folder labeled “Responses for Student Discussions, Class XXX, Week YYY,” deposit your selected responses there, and then use them when appropriate for future classes.
Errol Craig Sull has been teaching online courses for more than 15 years and has a national reputation in the subject, both writing and conducting workshops on it. He is currently putting the finishing touches on his next book—How to Become the Perfect Online Instructor.
Excerpted from “Teaching Online With Errol: Creating Effective Responses to Student Discussion Postings.” Online Classroom, April 2010: 6, 7.