Newsletter 9 – Teaching Writing with Discussion Boards

Sarah Kennedy, Professor of English

November 2013

Good writing requires revision. I knew this to be true when I began teaching online, and I have experimented with various ways to guide students in Blackboard courses through this difficult but necessary process. I have found that using the Discussion Board (DB) as an open, grade-free forum for, well, discussion works wonderfully as a way both to create community among the students and to encourage frank, constructive conversation about writing.

Students are often reluctant to show their writing to anyone, let alone post it on a forum that the whole class can see, so it’s vital to establish a comfortable community from the outset of the course. I usually introduce myself in the first DB and invite students to do the same. I also engage in somewhat informal responses to student postings in the DBs on literature fairly frequently, and students respond in turn—though they must also respond with short essays to the more formal writing prompts and mini-lectures on the DB. We all become accustomed to several modes of writing in this way.

Then, well before formal papers come due, I post an ungraded “Topics Discussion” forum on the DB. I invite students to propose potential topics and to ask questions about the assignment. They almost always respond to this, because students want to be sure that their topics are acceptable. Once the conversation gets rolling, they ask more questions. They also get ideas from each other and use them to refine their own topics.

Next comes the Rough Draft Discussion Board—also ungraded. Here, I invite students to post part or all of their rough drafts, to vent frustrations about their writing, and to ask questions. When they post, I download the drafts, comment on them, and repost them with additional comments—and encouragement (encouragement is absolutely necessary!).

When I first did this, I was amazed at how responsive the students were. They want to talk about their writing, and they want to see what others are writing and how I respond to it. They never criticize each other, though they do often respond to other students’ drafts and questions about thesis statements, about organization, about using secondary sources, and about grammar (I had a student on the DB just today who asked me to clarify the difference between “may” and “might”). They also joke, commiserate, and complain about sleeplessness and irritation at themselves—and their writing gets better as they do this, partly because they get more comfortable with the writing process as a process—that must eventually lead to a finished product.

Sometimes students do want to post rough drafts too often, and I do set limits. If a student has posted three rough drafts on one assignment, for example (yes, this happens), I may gently tell her that others need to have an equal amount of my time. This can, of course, embarrass an overly-eager student, so in these rare cases I privately email my communication to the student rather than posting it on the DB, and I never admonish her, because she’s usually just nervous and needing some reassurance.

For the most part, however, the topic and rough draft DBs are great ways of engaging online students in friendly, helpful conversation about their own and their peers’ writing. I find that my students really want to learn to be better writers and thinkers, but they’re also tense about showing their mistakes and missteps. The Discussion Board, if it’s set up as a place where we work together to improve, can help students to push past that tension. And, in my experience, the grades that they earn on their final papers reflect the improvement that penalty- and stress-free conversation can help them to achieve.

About the Committee:

The Instructional Technology Committee is an ad-hoc faculty committee made up of representatives from the faculty and the Instructional Technology staff at Mary Baldwin. The Current Committee is:
Carol Creager
Doris Dodson
Bob Klonoski
Chandra Mason
Reid Oechslin
Rachel Potter
Beverly Riddell
Laura van Assendelft
Ken Beals
Ben Herz
The charter of the committee is to:
Provide a forum for input to the Instructional Technology staff on the relative value of technological improvements from a pedagogical perspective.
Be a champion and example for technology enhanced teaching within their schools
Try out new technologies that seem promising
Develop and share best practices & rubrics for technology enhanced teaching
Recommend equipment and management for mixed use (instructional and non-instructional) space
This committee meets as necessary.