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.

Always New Things to Learn: Eric Hayot’s “Uneven U”

A few weeks ago, a professor of mine passed out a piece of paper with a grainy photocopy of a book on it, barely readable and clearly hastily done. He explained that he was going to discuss writing techniques for a bit before starting class, as we had a paper due next week. I was happy to hear that he would be teaching some writing skills, but mostly resigned myself to zoning out as the typical platitudes such as “reread your work” and “start with a strong thesis” were shared for the thousandth time. Luckily, however, I idly perused that messy handout and on it, I found an ingenious new method of writing structure and organization. A two page scan of Eric Hayot’s book Essential Elements of Academic Style shared the concept of the “Uneven U.”

The Uneven U works off of a concept of 5 different levels of thought. These can be exemplified in a sentence, a paragraph, or even a whole section of a paper. The 5 levels are as follows:

  1. Concrete evidence, raw data, quotations
  2. Describing, summarizing, or paraphrasing the idea
  3. Analyzing the idea
  4. Contextualizing the idea
  5. Major claim or contribution of the idea to the larger whole

The levels get gradually more complex as they increase, traveling from the most simple raw material to the whole point of the essay. These levels are then applied in the structure of a paragraph by traveling from the central level, level 4, down to raw data, level 1, and back up again to approach the main idea of the whole essay at level 5. If you make a rough graph of it, it ends up looking like a slightly lopsided U:

uneven_uIt’s important to note that this isn’t a scatter plot graph; the smooth connecting line between the points shows that it’s not a discrete sentence for each level. Sometimes you may need a couple of sentences on level 3, and perhaps only half a sentence for level 2. The goal is to use the graph as a guideline, as a gesture where the paragraph is viewed as a vehicle of travel between different depths of thought.

Where Hayot’s ideas really become valuable to me, though, is when you apply them not just to a paragraph, but to the whole essay. Thus, it’s not the first sentence that is a level 4, it’s the first paragraph. Applied like this, a paper’s structure develops this beautiful fractality:


The really lovely thing about this is that you can see the upwards progression of the main idea throughout each paragraph, section, and the whole essay. Since each piece ends just above where it began, there’s a driving movement towards the final height of the essay—the main point.

I particularly like Hayot’s Uneven U because it fits very well with my current method of writing. But given that, I think it’s valuable for just about any writer to at least consider Hayot’s method. Maybe try using it as a basis for your outline, finding the levels for each of your paragraphs. Or use it as a method of review, and label each of your sentences with a level to see where your structure stands in relation to Hayot’s U. Thinking visually about your writing can be a valuable way to gain new insights into your process and your ideas.

I’ve found The Uneven U to be particularly helpful when writing opening paragraphs. The levels help me to make sure that I’m covering all of my bases, and the level 5 sentence is always my thesis. I have that photocopy in my folder with me at all times now, and it’s already starting to get soft with use and covered in pen marks and marginal notes. It reminds me that I am in no way done learning to write, and that being open to new ideas is the most important step in maintaining a strong, even if messy, writing method.

Eric Hayot, Essential Elements of Academic Style, Columbia University Press (2014)


Writing Centers Grow Up, Too

writingThe transition from high school into university is a large leap for many: students, parents, teachers, administrators, and, yes, even writing centers. Adjusting to the higher quality of writing and topics in numerous subjects that aren’t found in typical high school papers is a daunting task for both the consultant and the consultee, but it’s a necessary leap in higher education that fosters personal and intellectual growth.

High school is often the first time students encounter a a group of people dedicated solely to helping them improve their writing. But high school writing centers are often not valued to the same extent as writing centers at the university level. When I was a junior in high school, I helped found my county’s first in-school writing center, comprised of about thirty students and one very dedicated advisor.

To be honest, it was very slow-going. First, we had to get the word out that we now existed. Then we had to prove our value. The students had no prior experience with a writing center and were wary not just of our authority, but also of our ability to help. The center was only open during lunch hours, so sessions were crammed into 15- to 30-minute chunks and focused more on quick grammar and punctuation fixes than on content and analysis. More often than not, the only students who came to visit were those who were required to by their teachers.

For me, the biggest adjustment to working in a writing center at the university level has been the significant increase in working with students who come in on their own accord—students who truly want to improve their writing and value the consultant’s perspective. Not only that, but now we have an entire hour to sit down and work through the piece together, which is something that allows for a deeper conversation about the topic and arguments.

What I have found most rewarding, however, is the ability to work with more international students. These sessions pose different challenges for both the writer and the consultant. Working with students from a variety of countries has helped me see writing in an entirely different way—every culture, every language, every person has a unique voice and view of the world, and helping these students develop their ideas in their writing is a very rewarding experience that isn’t found often in a high school setting.

A higher education, especially at a liberal arts university like William & Mary, encourages students to gain a broad perspective on subjects in multiple disciplines. University writing centers have adapted to the different levels and expectations of writing, giving students a place to find support as they grow as writers.