Online discussions can help you get ready for class, learn how to talk to others, practise your writing, and learn from other people. To be successful, you need to bring your skills for talking to people in person to the online world. Don’t forget that online discussions are conversations first and foremost, not writing assignments. The following tips show you how to have a good online discussion, whether it’s in a discussion group or a live chat.

Putting up a blog

Make a claim, an argument, or a question

After you’ve done the required reading or task, think of a thesis and how to support it. Then, read the other postings to see how they support or contradict your idea, and write about this. Another way to find evidence is to look for posts that don’t have any. You can also put your ideas in the form of questions or take the role of the “devil’s advocate.” Though, keep in mind that opinions are not the same as arguments. Make sure to back up what you say with examples from the course or other sources, like readings.

Put keywords in the title

Online discussions can lead to a lot of messages, so you need to think about the best way to add to them. Make sure that your title gives a clear idea of what your post is about so that other participants can understand it quickly. “What I think about the readings for today” is not nearly as clear as “What I think about Freud’s theory of mourning and melancholia.” Your title could also be a summary of your opinion, argument, or question, like this: “Freud’s theory about sadness and grief: A false divide.”

Encourage discussion

If you’re the first person to post, try to get people to talk. Make bold statements or ask open-ended questions in your message to get people to think (and write). Most of the time, people respond to and quote the first person to post. Check back to see if and how others have responded to your ideas.

Make your posts short, clear, and to the point

In general, write one to two paragraphs that say what you want to say. Long messages are hard to read online. Another general rule is to only make one main point in each post and back it up with evidence and/or an example. Be concise (Vonderwell, 2003).

Your stance doesn’t have to last forever

Taking a stand on an issue can be scary at times, especially when you put it in writing, which we tend to think of as permanent. Don’t forget that you can change your mind! Just say that the new information brought up in the discussion has made you change your mind. Change is what learning is about.

Other practical things to think about when posting on a message board

Reading through a busy discussion forum with lots of posts and replies can be frustrating. Make sure to start a new thread if the discussion moves on to a new subject. By signing up to get emails when new posts are made, people can keep up with a conversation without having to keep going back to the discussion forum. You can set up the tool to let you know when a new post is made or to send you a summary of all the posts every day.

Trying to answer other posts

Make it clear what’s going on

A descriptive title will help, but you might also want to include a quote from the message you’re responding to in your reply. If the original message is long, cut out the parts that don’t have anything to do with your answer. And if the original has a lot of paragraphs, you could put your comments between them to give readers a better idea of what you’re talking about (Vonderwell, 2003).

Add something to the talk

Saying “I agree” doesn’t get the conversation anywhere. Ask yourself why you agree, and explain why, so that others can respond to something else (Vonderwell, 2003).

Ask probing questions

If you want to keep a conversation going, you could ask the following:

  • What's your point in saying that?
  • Why do you think that way (or why don't you)?
  • What do you mean by the word you just used?
  • What do you mean when you say that?
  • Could you explain what you meant?
  • What does what you just said lead to?
  • What are some alternatives to this way of putting it? (Roper, 2007)
You can disagree with your classmates if you want to

You might need to disagree with a classmate to share a different point of view or help others understand what you mean. Remember to disagree in a respectful way (no name-calling or swearing) and to back up your point with evidence, but don’t feel bad if you have a different view. Your contribution should make the conversation more useful for everyone.

Try to bring the group together

Discussions help everyone learn together. When you work well together as a group, you’ll be more open to the benefits of this kind of learning. Give each other positive feedback, use light humour, avoid comments that could be taken as insults, call each other by your first name, answer quickly, and help each other out. Also, remember that there are no body language or voice cues online. You’ll have to explain how you feel (e.g., “I’m confused about this” or “I feel strongly”), or else no one will understand.

Watch out for posts that make you feel something

If a message makes you feel very sad or angry, don’t answer right away. In the heat of the moment, it’s easy to write something you later wish you could take back. If you post it to the discussion, it’s too late. Even waiting a day can give you enough time to think about how to respond in a more calm and professional way.

Taking a positive view of things

Engaging in online chats

During an online lecture, online chats can be used in the same way that Twitter can be used in the classroom: to ask questions or make comments. Try to be brief and clear in what you say. Remember to be polite and professional. Don’t write anything you wouldn’t say in class. Also, don’t put too many links to unrelated resources in the chat. Stay on task and try to add something to the class.

Try out new ideas

Discussion is about listening to what other people have to say and working to form and change your own ideas and points of view. Different points of view can help everyone understand the issue or idea being talked about better. They are opportunities to learn.

Enjoy yourself

There are many benefits to learning online, like being able to learn from your classmates as well as your teacher. Use the time to get better at skills you can use for the rest of your life and to think more deeply about the course material.

Scroll to Top