How to Help Students Find Their Online Voice in At-Home Learning

What is it that makes meaningful dialogue so elusive in online courses? Some practices in online course design and discussion facilitation can actually encourage superficial dialogue. Faculty grading and feedback that require too much formality of language can scare students into virtual silence, sticking to exactly what the text says or saying what they think the professor wants to hear rather than finding and using their unique online voice. Focusing on lower-level writing issues (such as grammar, APA style, or academic language) takes students away from content issues toward format issues. Although faculty might expect students to use formal academic language in their essays and research papers, it is not ideal for discussion.

To invite a student’s authentic online voice into the discussion, create discussion forum instructions that explicitly ask students to use their everyday language in the discussion forum. Instructors can also encourage an informal tone in each student’s online voice by modeling the use of everyday language in discussion posts as they enter into the conversation. When we show students that their own authentic way of communicating is interesting to us and to other students, we encourage them to value their own and one another’s thinking. Essentially, we are sending them the message that their opinions and knowledge matter in whatever field we are studying. 

Discussion can also fall flat when the question prompts do not connect with students’ background experiences or interests. Thoughtful dialogue depends largely on whether we create discussion prompts that connect to students’ background experiences, or pique their interest in some way. For example, asking students to “discuss the implications of punishment for medical error” is very different from asking, “Think about a time when you were afraid to tell the truth. What made you afraid? Do you think that punishment for medical errors could lead nurses and doctors to hide their mistakes? When mistakes are hidden, are they more or less likely to be repeated? What would an ideal hospital policy look like regarding how supervisors respond to reports of medical error?” 

The first discussion prompt uses formal language, possibly straight from the text. There is no attempt to make a personal connection between the content and the student’s own experience. Although the topic is interesting and important, the discussion prompt does not help students realize that they already have life experiences that relate to this discussion. The second discussion prompt indirectly tells students that their online voice and real-life experiences matter and are applicable. Discussion prompts that ask students to tell stories they have heard or experienced can invite highly engaging conversation.

In addition, when we focus our grading and feedback only on each individual student’s ideas rather than on the creative conversation that emerges from good online listening, we create the conditions for a discussion full of individual speeches. We can miss out on the creative connections and new learning that come from truly interactive dialogue this way. One very helpful strategy is to ask students to really listen to one another in this discussion. Some faculty members offer examples of an online dialogue in which listening is clearly not happening. Such a dialogue may include interesting student reflections on a reading, but the students’ posts make no reference to what is happening in others’ posts or to what they are discovering from the conversation.

Tell students that the greatest compliment they can give other people is to tell them, honestly, that their thinking has changed or expanded their own, and how. Discussion grading rubrics that focus on active listening in the forum can be a great way to reinforce the message. Active online listening begins with thoughtful reading of someone else’s post, then asking questions or sharing ideas that the other person’s post brought to mind. Deep listening lies at the heart of every creative dialogue, and it is, fortunately, a set of skills that can be learned. 

Allison Green
Boston Tutoring Services

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