Online Forums: Responding Thoughtfully

Assigned a discussion post for a class? Follow these strategies to create a professional rhetorical stance in your posts.

Online Forums: Someone Responding Thoughtfully on a laptop

Some instructors assign weekly or biweekly discussion board posts (online forums) or other regular informal writing assignments, and oftentimes they require you to respond to your peers’ writing. Responding to your classmates can be an awkward or uncomfortable task because you might not want to offend them or say something silly.

As a result of this pervasive discomfort, students often just respond to an online forum post in one of the following ways:

This was really great. I really enjoyed it.
I really appreciate your point about [such-and-such].
Very well written. Good job.

Discussion Board” by Lee Henrikson, October 6, 2011, CC BY-NC 2.0

While it’s a good idea to provide your peers with positive feedback, responses that only say, “I like this a lot” are not really constructive and do not enable a productive discussion. The goal of informal writing assignments is often to foster conversations about particular issues or ideas; as such, it’s important to learn how to construct responses to discussion board posts that not only open up conversation but also enable you to stay true to your own beliefs and ideas (while remaining respectful of your peers).

Respectfully Disagreeing

Let’s say, for example, that your instructor asked you to write about your beliefs regarding abortion. This is a very controversial topic, and it’s important that you realize that others in the class may be very sensitive about any discussion relating to abortion. So let’s say you strongly disagree with abortion and after visiting the discussion board you come across the following post:

All women should have abortions if they’re unmarried. Having children when a woman is unmarried can cause severe problems for that child later in life. The child can grow up and become a drug addict. So it’s the woman’s duty to have an abortion if there is no father in the picture.

At this point, you have two options: you can choose to respond to another post—one you find less offensive, or you can challenge yourself to respond in a way that fosters discussion and perhaps also challenges the writer of that post to consider a different perspective. Remember that you have assumed the role of opposition; you strongly disagree with the claim that “all [unmarried] women should have abortions.” Take a minute to jot down some  responses to this provocative claim.

Now, let’s take a look at some examples of constructive responses:

I understand your fear for the child’s quality of life, but which is worse—to never have lived at all or to face some challenges in life that could potentially make that child stronger?

I respectfully disagree with your views regarding abortion. I do understand your concerns, but I wonder whether drug addiction necessarily follows a fatherless life. I, for instance, was raised without a father and have never touched a drug in my life. Do you think that all children who are raised without fathers cannot lead fulfilling and successful lives?

Perhaps we might consider the logic employed in this post: while I understand your concern for the child’s quality of life, I do not understand that connections you’re drawing. Perhaps you—or someone else who agrees with this post—could elaborate upon why you feel this way?

All of these responses demonstrate an appreciation of the writer’s opinion, even if the respondent disagrees with the original post. Moreover, these responses point to issues with the writer’s logic. Plus, by ending the response with a question, the responses open up further discussion.

If you disagree with someone’s post, you should aim to acknowledge your disagreement in a mature and respectful way, without belittling the writer; you should not respond angrily, not concede the point, not end the discussion. You’ve probably come across controversial blogs or news articles that are followed by obnoxious comments from people who really disagree with the content of those materials. Reading such comments shows you how rhetorically ineffective volatile statements can be. Learning how to construct thoughtful, constructive responses to discussion board posts will also help you in your professional life, in which you’re sure to encounter moments when you respectfully disagree with someone.

Comments posted in response to Gidick, Kinsey. “Ohioans have invaded the Lowcountry … and some folks wish they would leave.” Charleston City Paper. Charleston City Paper, 5 May 2010. Web. 15 May 2012. Retrieved from .

Writing Commons, learn to read and write English

Agreeing with and Expanding upon a Post

The same principle works for responding to posts with which you agree. While you shouldn’t say you disagree just to open up discussion, you can still explain the points with which you agree and then add another point to foster further discussion.

Let’s say you agree with the above post about abortion. You might respond in a manner similar to the following:

I definitely see your point about the child’s quality of life. In fact, I know someone who dealt with a previous experience. I would also like to add this question: What about women who have been raped? Would that trauma necessarily carry over to the child?

In the example above, the respondent adds another point of discussion to the original question. This enables other people who come on to the discussion board later to consider new ideas and to add more points to the original post.

Ultimately, the goal of online forums is to open up discussion, to respectfully disagree (if you disagree), to expand upon the writer’s point if you agree, and to contribute more ideas than just “I like this post.” After all, discussion board threads are just like conversations: imagine what would happen in a conversation if one person asserted an argument and the others just said, “I agree.” The conversation would die. The benefit of discussion boards is they enable the people involved in the conversation to consider their responses before posting them. So use that dynamic of the virtual world to your advantage: respond thoughtfully, engaging with the digital conversation.

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