Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Let's Chat About... Insider Tips to Expand Discussion Forum Posts (Or Any Other Writing That Needs More Depth)

I had a question from a student this past week! Can you tell I'm crazy-excited about that?

I've had a number of comments to the blog--thank you times one million and keep them coming! This question, however, is one that I know impacts many students out there, both those in face-to-face classes and in online environments. This discussion might even help anyone trying to write in a more expansive way.

So, here goes: 

Dear Chatty Professor,
I just wanted to thank you for writing your last post "Why Asking for Help is the New Smart." After I read your blog, I felt encouraged to write to my professor for help about an issue that I'm having in  class (Class name left out for anonymity). I feel my writing is not up to this person's standards when compared to the majority of students who are majors in the field. After I "beef up" my responses as the professor asks, I am still not receiving full points. Do you have any additional tips on how to "beef up" online postings/discussions or improve communications in an online learning setting. Did I mention English is my second language? 


Just for further context, the student included the initial e-mail exchange with the prof, which was awesome (but, just for the record, not necessary to send to me along with your question. Ask anyway!): The student used "I" language, mentioned the specific points of struggle, and asked directly how to improve the scores.

The prof wrote back and said that writing was sound, but not extensive enough. The student needed to meet the "quality" and "quantity" standards for the post. In this case, the prof wanted 14 sentences for each posting--original and response (Just an aside, this is pretty specific. Many profs don't tell the exact line length to shoot for.)

Now for my response: 

"I'm so glad that you wrote to me! Yes, I can definitely give you some tips:

1.  I see that the prof is telling you what to do, but have you asked, "Professor, do you have a sample of what you consider to be an ideal post? It would be helpful for me to see what the students who are getting higher grades are doing."

2.  Along those same lines, a discussion forum rubric is another way to gauge what your prof is looking for. If your prof doesn't have one, maybe you can say, "Would you be willing to let the students create a rubric and add this as an extra assignment?" (even extra credit?). I think having students create the criteria for what is considered a strong discussion forum post (with the prof's guidance) could benefit everyone. 

3.  It's wonderful that the prof is giving you an actual guideline regarding the number of lines he/she wants you to follow in your response. It sounds like your quality is going well (and, in my opinion, that's the harder part), but your prof wants you to add more. Here are ways to do this:

-First, if this is a response, make sure you directly comment on the original poster's material. I tell my students "advance the conversation." So, in essence, you take a look at the post of the person you're responding to then you pull out something from their post that you can paraphrase and carry further. 

So, let's say I'm writing that I disagree with AMC's "Breaking Bad" leaving the air (I'm going to take a really light topic here, although an important one to me!). I discuss that it's a wonderful show. It has won many awards. I also feel that the writers could take the storyline further and the show is being canceled prematurely.

Now, you respond: "Ellen, I really appreciated your comment about Breaking Bad being canceled (acknowledging the point of my comment). I see that you're saying it should stay on the air because the writers can take the storyline further (paraphrasing my comment). You know, I have a different view on this: It seems that Hank is very close to finding out that Walt is really Heisenberg and, really, how much longer can this cat-and-mouse game continue? I also believe that the only way the writers could dramatize this show further is to bring back Walt's lung cancer, and that would just appear to be a ploy to keep the show going." In that response, you have taken my words and advanced them with your own ideas. Certainly, you'd keep writing to meet the line requirement outlined by your prof.

-Now, how to expand: Make sure you are telling and showing. I teach my students this all the time with respect to speech writing. It's one thing to mention a fact or an idea (the "tell"), but you can "beef up" your content by giving examples and background about that fact, as well as your ideas and opinion. This is considered "showing" what you are "telling." 

Here is an example: Often, when my students do their career speeches, they might say, "According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, an accountant's starting salary can range from the low $40,000s to the mid $60,000s." 

This singular statement "tells" the audience a fact.

Here's what happens when we add some "show" to it:

"According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, an accountant's starting salary can range from the low $40,000s to the mid $60,000s. My uncle, Joe Jones, who has been an accountant for the past five years, states that his salary started in the mid-$50,000s because he went to work for a very small company. He also knew that in his town, accountants just starting out didn't earn quite as much. Later, Joe moved to a different state, joined a much larger organization, and his salary increased by about 40%."

-Another way to expand:  Go to your textbook for the topic, itself, and see what the authors are saying. Of course, you can't lift material from the book--that would be plagiarism. However, you can cite the text (my students would get major points for that!) and then build on what the author is saying, whether you agree or disagree.

-Yet another way to expand:  Go to the internet, then to your school's library page, and do some additional research about the topic. Make sure you use credible sources (which is why I recommend going to your school's library search engines, unless you already have a credible body of sites that you are using for the class), of course. The class you are taking seems like it would have ripe possibilities for finding additional material that you can comment on. Put in some key words from the prof's post to help your search. Then, once you find an article or two that would work for you, incorporate that into your post. You can say, "I did some research and found this great article from..." At the end of your post, you can add the link.

-Just generally speaking, when your post seems too lean, keep asking yourself questions to expand: "Why?" and "How?" are a good start to help you continue to "show" what you know. Here are some other question prompts to help you as you read through your initial writing and strive to add more:

-What is the difference between?
-What is interesting or surprising to me?
-What else does this remind me of? What else does this look like?
-How can I tell?
-What is the reason ________ is this way?
-What can I generalize from this? 

I appreciate you telling me that English is not your native language. On my campus, a huge number of my students are also ESL, and I realize that it's hard and sometimes not culturally comfortable to assert what feels like a ton of your thoughts/opinion in a discussion forum post (or in a paper, speech, etc.). Know that your prof wants to hear your voice! Therefore, he/she is giving you the space to share your knowledge and ideas. So, go for it! 

I hope you'll follow up with great grade news!!!

I'm going to share your question on my blog; I believe your issue is shared by many, many students and would be helpful to them.

Please write again! I'm glad to help.

Best of luck to you. I know you are going to do well!

Okay, students, who else is struggling out there? I'd love to hear about it. I've said before and I'll say it again... if I don't know the answer, I have ready-resources and have no problem asking for help! Colleagues, do you have more to add to my ideas for this student regarding "quality" and "quantity" in discussion forum posts?

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