A Secret Revealed: Becoming an A+ Discussion Instructor

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“Yup, that is so cool! … “See what you can do to expand that paragraph” … “Little tweaks can have better responses!” … “No, no, no, no, no; that’s off target.”  Thus were some of the typical responses Olivia Oglethorpe offered to her students in each unit’s Discussion.  Some of these tumbled from her mind in immediate responses to students’ posts, while others rested peacefully in a bank of comments at the ready when needed.  Sadly, Olivia saw little progress in students’ posts with each new unit, never realizing what she gave students was bland, dry, empty, and vacuous.  To give students Discussion feedback that takes them into better quality of Discussion posts as a result of their quality, richness, and specificity is an art – but one that can be easily mastered.

The online Discussion has been called “the heartbeat” of a distance learning class, and for good reason. It’s alive, Alive, ALIVE – with daily posts from students: initial posts and replies to other posts.  One more “player” needs be added, the instructor.  This person’s involvement in each Discussion thread is key to moving along any Discussion thread, guiding any Discussion thread, and motivating the students in each Discussion thread.  This complex mix of students and instructor can be separated into a symphonic musical piece: the students are the various instruments; the instructor is the conductor.  Working harmoniously, seamlessly in sync will produce a beautiful adagio, but not working together, one ends with a cacophony of disjointed posts.  The latter should never happen.

Is there some magic amulet that can make an instructor’s Discussion interactions worthy of applause?  No.  How about the possibility it’s the students, not the instructor, at fault for poor Discussion engagement?  Not a chance. Maybe, just maybe, not every instructor has the ability to steer great Discussions?  Can’t be considered.  The answer to this long-sought component of what makes the student experience great is a simple one: follow the yellow brick road to the Emerald City of Being a Great Discussion Leader.

Poor Olivia never did, and the lack of student involvement in her weekly Discussion threads showed as much.  Fewer than 50% of her students showed for Discussion.  Information that should have been clarified by Olivia was not, and it showed in students’ written assignments.  Email after email poured into Olivia from students who attended the Discussions, complaining, upset, discouraged.  End-of-the-course evaluations were quite poor, with students writing “not helpful,” “absent,” “no interest in teaching,” and “could care less about her students.”  This was not good.

How does Olivia get back on track?  Is it too late for Olivia to turn things around in  her Discussions? Fortunately, Olivia’s supervisor wanted to help her.  She knew Olivia had great teaching qualities and felt this instructor could become a strong asset in course Discussions.  The supervisor dusted off a book she had received years ago – from whom had faded from her memory – titled A Secret Revealed: The Art of Online Instructor Discussion Postings.  Its contents for OIivia turned out to be priceless.  In a capsulated format this is what it offered:

  • Offer students an upfront guide to the how and why of Discussion.  Let students know on Day One of class what you expect in Discussion and why. Remind them of this list for each new Discussion week, with appropriate tweaks for each Discussion subject.
  • Know well the subject of a Discussion thread.  Be fully aware of a Discussion subject and the thread’s purpose.  Knowing these will keep instructor posts on track and help to be sure students don’t wander into weather, great movies, cool concerts, and the like.
  • Always address students by name. A big mistake made by Olivia was never using a student’s name.  This seemed cold, almost robotic, and does little to help that all-important student-instructor bond.  Each time the instructor replies to a student post that student’s name should always appear in the first sentence.  It translates into “I care – I know you are a person, not simply an I.D. number.”
  • Balance postings so all students are reached.   An instructor may be required to have X number of posts and/or reach Y number of students.  As the weeks of Discussion threads pass by be sure each student has been visited by at least two instructor replies; this tells the student his or her post is valuable, that it counts.  Also, be especially mindful of the reticent student; posting to this person can help engage the student.
  • Ask questions to spur on student postings. Olivia’s postings simply ended; they dropped dead, there was no life to them.  But tacking on a question to the end of an instructor post – relating to what the student posted – can help the Discussion grow.  (A tip: many students really like responding to ”the professor”!)
  • Always connect Discussions to the world of employment. Discussion is not merely a grade; its importance on the job should be emphasized, especially the importance of detailed posts.
  • Offer a pleasant yet authoritative voice in each posting.  Tone of what students read is important. Be positive, yet conversational; don’t hesitate to share bits of personal background with the students as it relates to the subject: it shows the instructor is also human.
  • Be sure Discussion postings are substantive and on target.  Olivia’s posts offered nothing to assist her students; they were also vague.  Make posts that offer solid information and insight; be sure they are specific.
  • Use student quotes within instructor postings. Include a sentence or two from a student post when replying: this shows the student post was read, and the student wrote something the instructor deemed important.
  • Keep Discussions on track. When students wander bring the Discussion around to the topic. Do so in a gentle, perhaps humorous manner. If a student is overtaking a Discussion, uses foul language, insults a student etc. do not address the student in the Discussion, but rather privately, email and/or call.

Olivia studied the points her supervisor gave her: it was an awakening!  No-one had previously offered Olivia much guidance on the “how” of Discussion postings; it was just expected she would know. Her motivation and enthusiasm grew, and in sync was student Discussion involvement: major excitement, greater attendance, no more complaints, great evaluations!  How nice, Olivia thought, to be a positive force in Discussion – and to help students have an over-the-top classroom experience.

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