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Discussion Forum Practices for Writing Classes

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During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers around the globe had to quickly find creative ways to recreate the classroom setting via online media. While the crisis did highlight the potential of cutting-edge technology for continuing educational endeavors outside of the classroom, the strengths of older, simpler options like discussion forums also became clearer. Discussion forums, which allow students to participate asynchronously (i.e., when they are free to do so) and do not require a powerful internet connection, proved especially helpful for students spread across disparate geographical areas.

This page shares some simple suggestions for using these reliable platforms to facilitate open, welcoming class discussions in remote creative writing classes. However, several of these suggestions can be implemented in other kinds of writing-focused classes (or even non-writing classes).

Require students to respond to each other’s posts

In an ideal world, students would be so engrossed in digital course discussions that they would not need any extra incentive to participate. In reality, this is rarely the case. Thus, it can be wise to make a small portion of students' grades contingent upon their regular participation in forum discussions. This ensures not only that students regularly reflect on course readings and activities via discussion, but also that students are able to learn from their peers' perspectives.

There is no single "correct" number of posts to require from students. That said, one sensible approach is to require students to create one new thread and make one reply to another student's thread per week. This way, students are forced to reflect not only on their own their own understanding of, e.g., a set of course readings, but also on others' understandings. This is also a good way to ensure a steady minimum level of discussion each week.

Have each student “present” on a key reading by writing about it at length

It’s common in writing courses for instructors to ask each student to lead a discussion of an important theme, reading, or concept at least once per semester. On a discussion forum, this assignment can be replicated in similar way to how it would be handled in-class. Simply assign each student a specific day to present on a specific theme, character, genre, etc. Instead of presenting orally, the student can write a long post in the discussion forum covering his or her main points. Prior to the first “presentation,” however, talk with the student about how best to lead peer discussions of their work. For example, you may want to direct students to provide a few discussion questions at the end of their post for their fellow classmates.

You may also consider a hybrid approach that uses the discussion forum in conjunction with other technology. For example, students can post their writeup on the discussion forum, then hold a question and answer session via a video conferencing app like Zoom. In cases like this, however, it’s important to choose technology that are freely available to all students (including those with poor internet connections) and to provide tutorials on the use of the technology when appropriate.

Use the board to build logistical redundancy into your course

Crises that force instructors to switch to online instruction—like the COVID-19 pandemic—affect students in various ways. Some students, for instance, will not ask questions of the instructor as freely as they would have in an in-person classroom. Others may check their course site for their assignments, but forget to check their email (or the reverse).

Be considerate of your students as they work to make adjustments. One way to do this is to treat your course’s discussion forum—where students will ostensibly need to go to complete their assignments—as a redundancy for important information like course announcements, assignment guides. In other words, post important messages, documents, and announcements on the board in addition to wherever you’d normally post them. One easy way to do this is to use the “sticky post” feature included with most discussion forums, which allows you to make important posts remain at the top of the board.