Threaded discussions are a crucial part of most online learning models. By composing comments and posting them to a discussion board, students in online classes demonstrate their comprehension of what they are learning; they reflect on how their response to the course content compares with the responses of their peers and, critically, they gain experience articulating their thoughts in writing. Whether or not a particular class includes composition instruction as one of its stated objectives, writing to communicate is part of the “shadow curriculum” that is implicit in any class that requires students to compose posts for a threaded discussion board.
Wherever there is student writing – or writing of any sort, for that matter – there are bound to be errors of grammar, punctuation, or sentence structure. Writing, even a piece of writing as short as a discussion board post, also inevitably involves stylistic choices of language, tone, and arrangement that can be evaluated and critiqued independently of the content of the piece. Online instructors responding to student posts tend to focus on what the students write about, rather than on the technical or stylistic aspects of their writing, especially when the class is not designated as a writing class. Of course, in the limited time that instructors have to respond individually to student posts, questions of grammar or style are necessarily subordinated to the curricular needs of the class. Additionally, drawing explicit attention to errors in students' writing may embarrass individual students and make them less forthcoming in the discussion board environment. Tact and sensitivity are extremely important, especially when it comes to ESL learners or students who may come from language communities in which nonstandard linguistic variations are common.
At the same time, however, when students make the same mistake repeatedly, or when grammar issues threaten to obscure a student's meaning, an instructor might be said to have a responsibility to address the issue in some way. In my online teaching, I have experimented with a number of different strategies to address grammar errors and other language issues in threaded discussions without detracting from the curricular focus of the course or making students feel singled out. Employing a mixture of such strategies has helped me tailor my approach to the particular needs of individual instances.
- In certain cases, the best strategy is the direct approach. After responding to the content of what the student says, the instructor may include a brief paragraph about the student's grammar. In a nonconfrontational and nonjudgmental way, the instructor may use the student's mistake as a teachable moment and invite the rest of the class to join the conversation about similar grammar questions that they may have.
- In cases where a particular student is committing a pattern of grammatical errors that is unique to herself, rather than responding publicly to these issues the instructor may consider communicating with the student through private channels about possible solutions that might enable her to improve her writing skills. The comments that an instructor writes when the students' posts are graded provide an opportunity for the instructor to specify the kinds of errors that a particular student is making, and possibly to provide links to online resources that will allow the student to practice developing her skills in those areas.
- If a student's post contains a number of sentence-level errors, instructors may invite (or require) the student to edit the post. Even better, instructors may require all students to review their posts at the end of the week and edit them before they are officially graded. For posts with multiple errors, instructors may consider including an “error tally” in their responses to alert the students to scan for ways to improve their own grammar. Providing the number of errors found rather than identifying the errors, specifically challenges students to act as their own editors, and it also provides a handy quantitative measure of a student's technical proficiency. Students may be encouraged to keep a running error log in which they track the frequency of specific technical errors they make over the course of the semester.
- Assign peer editors. If there is a discussion question for the week, ask the students to write a response to the question in their first post of the week, and then to use their second post to respond in the capacity of peer editor to an assigned classmate's original post. Students can provide feedback to their peers regarding content, style, and mechanics. The third post of the week might require each student to respond specifically to the comments offered by their peer editor. This technique allows students to reflect on each other's use of language without singling out any one student, embeds the question of technical accuracy within the more holistic concerns of massaging and presentation, and allows every student to both give and receive grammatical suggestions.
- Make grammatical lessons a running subtopic each week. While the focus of the discussion post should always be the curricular content of the course, instructors can use their own posts and their announcements to encourage students to pay special attention to, say, commas or sentence fragments as they write their comments for the week. The instructor's announcement might explain, “This week, we're discussing the causes of the Civil War, but I also want us to think specifically about how we use commas in our writing.” Announcing a grammatical subtopic allows students to practice avoiding errors related to the subtopic throughout the week, and it also allows the instructor to identify subtopic-related errors in students' posts without unfairly or conspicuously “picking on” them. The instructor's responses to student posts can be primarily about the content of the comments, but they might conclude with brief descriptions of the student's language in terms of the week's grammatical subtopic.
- Accentuate the positive. Rather than simply identifying grammatical errors in student posts, instructors should go out of their way to comment on particularly graceful turns of phrase or particularly effective sentences in student writing. Emphasis should be placed on praising students who use noticeably eloquent or sophisticated sentence structures to express their responses to the course material. In this way, an online instructor can hit two birds with one stone – reinforcing a student's noteworthy content-based observation while simultaneously drawing students' attention to the manner in which precise language is related to precise thinking.
In our email and text-message-mediated world, the ability to write accurately and effectively is one of the most important professional skills for a college graduate to master. By embedding explicit writing instruction within the online learning environment, instructors can help ensure that their students will become more reflective about how they use language and more aware of the authority that grammatical accuracy can add to their writing.
Randy Laist is an Associate Professor of English at Goodwin College.