You’re Saying I Have to Write Discussion Posts Now?

Computer screen with discussion post.

As colleges make the rapid shift to online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, many professors are using discussion boards to replace in-class participation. At William & Mary, these online conversations take place through the Blackboard learning management system. Despite their relative simplicity, discussion boards remain unfamiliar to many students. They also generate a host of questions, as does any new form of writing:

  • How long should my post be?
  • How many replies are appropriate?
  • How formal should I be?
  • How do I cite a discussion post in a paper?
  • How do I effectively reply to others?
  • Am I doing any of this right? Help!

This post will provide a few answers to these questions.

What do you write about in a discussion post?

If your professor provided discussion post guidelines, start there.

But what if your professor simply said “go wild?” In that case, take some time to consider your usual participation in this class. Do you ask a lot of questions? If so, write posts that request clarification or opinions from other participants. Do you mostly respond to others? You may want to wait until a few classmates have posted initial thoughts, and then use your post to engage with their ideas. What if you don’t usually talk in class? If that’s you, you may find online discussion to be a welcome improvement!

Text-based online participation allows for more voices to be heard, and encourages a wider breadth of conversation. Don’t be afraid to get really detailed or really broad in your discussions; the content of your post can be a lot more extensive, varied, and tangential than a typical in-class comment would be since everyone can read it at their leisure.

What are the rules of behavior in discussion forums?

There will probably be a learning curve as you and your classmates figure out what discussion forum etiquette looks like for your class. Here are a few rules of thumb that apply to most online discussions:

  • Be respectful. Just because you’re not face-to-face doesn’t mean words don’t still have power. When you criticize or disagree, be tactful and respond to the comment, not the commenter.
  • Avoid repeating something that has already been said. Read the rest of the thread before starting so that you’re aware of the whole conversation.
  • Reread your posts before you submit them. It’s always awkward to realize you’ve included a typo after you’ve already sent a post. (That said, don’t be afraid to edit your post after sending, if you need to fix things!)
  • Keep your style relatively formal. Discussion boards may feel somewhat like social media, but they aren’t. Use complete sentences, minimize jokes or sarcasm, and keep emoji use to a simple 🙂 when needed.
  • Make your posts meaningful. While you may want to express agreement, a post that just says “Yes!” isn’t helpful and clutters the thread. Be constructive, and try to think of a response or question that moves the discussion forward.

Do I Have to Cite Discussion Posts in Papers?

If you read a post that inspires further thinking, you may want to reference it in a later assignment. If you do, make sure to cite it, just as you would if you quoted someone from an in-class discussion. Both the MLA Style Center and the Purdue OWL’s APA Style Guide offer guidelines for citing discussion board posts. Here are two examples:


Johnson, Alex. “Writing Discussion Posts” Writing Center Online Course, 28 March 2020. Blackboard Learn,


Johnson, A. (2020). Re: Discussion Posts. Retrieved from

If you’re feeling anxious about discussion posts, remember that others in your class may be as uncertain as you are. Reach out to a classmate or your professor if you have questions, or want feedback on how you’re doing. Try to embrace the medium; this is a chance to share your niche knowledge or chase a thought into interesting new corners. And, remember, the Writing Resources Center consults on any form of communication. If you’re feeling stuck or confused, book an online appointment!

See you over the web soon. Stay well.

Maintaining Normalcy While Learning Remotely

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended student plans and disrupted learning routines at campuses across the country, including at William & Mary. Many of us left for Spring Break not realizing we’d be gone the rest of the semester or longer. Now that remote classes have started, it can be a struggle to stay motivated and focused on learning in these new formats and without our usual on-campus inspiration. Here are a few tips that can help you reduce stress, improve productivity, and generally make the most out of this unexpected experience.

1. Create a routine that you can take with you.

A routine doesn’t have to be complicated – it can be as simple as five things you do every day when you wake up or when you go to bed. The idea is to build a practice that can travel with you, so you are able to do it no matter where you are. My portable routine includes waking up early, practicing meditation and yoga, writing down at least one gratitude and goal for the day, and then eating breakfast. I can do this easily at home, in my dorm, in a hotel room, at a friend’s place, and so on. Maintaining a simple routine gives your mind and body a familiar pattern to follow and helps you manage the stress caused by events that are out of your control.

2. Create a dedicated study space.

Claiming a space as your own can be challenging, especially if your living arrangements aren’t conducive to studying, or if you have multiple people in your home working remotely. But even establishing a part-time study space—for example, by setting up the kitchen table as your “desk” for a few hours every day—can make a big impact on your productivity. When we try to study in spaces typically used for sleep or relaxation, we may subject ourselves to an unnecessary emotional muddle. For example, try to avoid working in bed. When I work from my bed, my mind begins to associate that spot with the energy and emotions I feel during work and school, which can make it much harder to unwind and fall asleep in that same bed at night. By separating the spaces, I avoid this emotional overlap and make it easier to be productive in my study space and fall asleep in my bed at night.

3. Minimize distractions and take notes.

Remote learning can be difficult because it often comes with many more distractions than learning in a classroom does – noisy backgrounds, family members interrupting, food, pets, and so on. During an online class session, maximize the browser on your screen so you can’t see other distractions on your computer, use headphones to help block out other sounds, ask family members if they can keep the volume down for the time you are in class, and take notes with a pen and paper so that you can stay focused on the class and not the tabs open on your computer.

4. Take purposeful and regular breaks.

It is easy to end up sitting at your computer or in front of the TV all day when working from home because it can seem like there isn’t much else to do. It is important, however, to take regular breaks from the screen to relax your eyes, muscles, and mind. Use these breaks purposefully: exercise, take a walk outside, play with your pet, or do something creative like knitting, drawing, painting, or writing. The goal is to give your brain regular rest periods throughout the day. A rested brain is better able to retain information. Keeping these breaks purposeful can help you stay energized and motivated to continue your studies.

5. Stay connected and use campus resources.

When we are on campus, our friends, classmates, professors, and campus resources are all nearby and more immediately available. Now that we are studying remotely, we have to take the extra step to reach out to others and seek support. Contact your friends and organize group FaceTime or Zoom calls. Setting a regular time for socializing can help replace the positive energy that used to come from running into friends on campus. In my case, I used to meet a friend every week at the Rec; now we FaceTime each other while exercising.

Many campus resources are also available online. Online appointments are available at the  Writing Resources Center and the Tribe Tutor Zone. The Wellness Center and Counseling Center have created a  Virtual Health & Wellness  page with pre-recorded classes on yoga, meditation, mindful arts, and more. The Office of Academic Advising has created a Studying with Distance Learning resources page, and their professional advisors are available for online appointments. The Dean of Students Office has created a student support page and is available for phone and Zoom meetings. If you’re struggling to keep up with your studies during this pandemic, it is important to ask for help.

Most of these tips can be used any time, not just during this unexpected campus hiatus. Implementing small changes to our daily habits, and staying connected to others, can help us maintain our sense of normalcy wherever life takes us. Stay healthy, W&M!