In any college writing class, readings are typically required because they model exemplary writing, enhance vocabulary, and generate new ideas. In an online environment where face-to-face contact is unavailable, the instructor may feel at a loss regarding the students’ level of comprehension of or interest in the readings.
One solution is to require participation in online postings of responses that students feel toward the readings. The discussions should be announced at least a week in advance so that students have time to read the essays and prepare their comments.
The postings, designed to take the place of sitting in a traditional classroom and talking about what they had just read, should take place in an online discussion forum in an environment similar to Blackboard or WebTycho.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Online Discussion Forums
An advantage of the online discussion forums is that students can post their comments at their leisure (within a specified timeframe and by the specific due date) after they have had a chance to ponder the readings and formulate their response, instead of feeling put on the spot in a traditional classroom setting. Shy people can take heart: they needn’t feel awkward about speaking up. They can feel free to post away on the online discussion forum.
A disadvantage is the inability to read one another’s body language or facial expressions. Instructors should advise students of netiquette rules so they are cognizant of how their written comments will come across to their fellow classmates in the online environment.
Focusing the Discussion
To fulfill this assignment, instructors can set up a online discussion forum with a series of basic questions on which students can focus their responses to the reading. For example, the class may be assigned to read “On Dumpster Diving” by Lars Eighner as an example of descriptive writing and given these prompts:
- How is the essay organized and why?
- What attitude does the writer take toward his subject matter?
- Does the essay make you think twice about the trash you generate in your day-to-day life?
Such questions encourage them to read the essay critically and think about the meaning behind the words. The guidelines for posting their response should be made clear. In brief, the instructor is looking for their reaction to the reading and their evidence for this opinion. Comments like “it was boring” or “I liked it” aren’t sufficient responses.
Expected Student Responses
Students should explain specifically why they disliked the reading, why they liked it, or how they thought it was effective or ineffective at fulfilling its purpose or influencing its audience. They should provide examples from the reading itself to back up their statements.
For example, a student might comment that, “I enjoyed this essay because the author made it seem like a how-to guide, and that got me so drawn into reading it. From reading his essay, I couldn’t believe he was homeless because of his great sentence structure and vocabulary. He was a better writer than me! ”
In this case, the instructor might encourage the student to provide an example of the author’s “great sentence structure” and give reasons why the quote is “great.”
Part of the assignment should involve relating the response to an aspect of the writing: its organization, its attention to detail, its descriptive or emotional qualities, its tone, its originality, its ability to keep their interest, its use of vocabulary, the author’s attitude toward the topic, the author’s use of humor or research. In other words, students should focus their comments on how effectively the author handles his material. A paragraph is usually sufficient.
For instance, a student might note: “I like how the author explains what dumpster to look thru. For example, he referenced college students and how they throw out many useful things when the semester is ending. This is very true. Most of the time when I am cleaning out my room, I throw many items away, so I don’t have to pack anything more than I need. ” It becomes clear that the essay has a ring of truth to this reader.
Another student might comment: “The final thing I found interesting is that he says that there is a technique to ‘dumpster diving’ which I would have never even thought, I would assume that you just jump in and dig around until you find something good but he says you must lower yourself into the dumpster and then search the bottom because that is where the good stuff tends to settle. Who would have thought there really is a technique to search through dumpsters?” This student appreciated the author’s matter-of-fact treatment of his unorthodox lifestyle.
Evaluating the Responses
Students could be graded on a simple scale:
- 4 points for in-depth critical understanding of the material
- 2 points for an expected level of demonstration of comprehension
- 0 points for comments that lack insight or that fail to demonstrate that any critical reading took place
- -2 points if comments are unrelated to the reading in any meaningful way
To receive the full 4 points, students are expected to post a meaningful personal response to the reading, along with evidence and examples from the reading to back up their statements.
Content over Style
The instructor can encourage participation by making it clear that content is more important in this assignment than style or skill. In other words, the responses will be evaluated on depth and insight, not on proper punctuation and grammar. Even so, students should be cautioned to follow standard English writing conventions and avoid regressive IM-type writing such as “you are so right.”
After all, this is a writing class!