Online Writing


Note: This teaching guide was written several years ago. Although some of the instructional technology that supports online writing has changed since them, the pedagogical principles described below are generally still very applicable to course-related online writing activities.

Many instructors are using online writing - email, asynchronous threaded discussion groups, and synchronous chat - in their teaching. And both students and teachers are using online communications to maintain personal and business relationships. Here we present a set of guidelines and tips for integrating online writing into a face-to-face course. The guidelines are developed especially for faculty who are just beginning to use these technologies in teaching.

The major point to be made regarding the introduction of these technologies is that their use should be integrated into the whole of the class. This means several things:

  • Build the online writing component into the grading structure . It's not just that students will spend time on something if they know that a grade depends on it. It's also that the assignment of a grade indicates to them that it's important.

  • Acknowledge the time that will be spent on it . Adding a significant online writing component is adding to the course load - on your students and on you. If you value it, and if you want your students to value it, then decide what other elements of the course will be dropped to make room for it.

  • Establish a clear and compelling relationship between the online writing and other elements of the course . Think of the online writing environment as another environment in which students encounter each other and you. Make clear to your students how you expect the work in this online environment to build upon and contribute to the other work in the course.


  • Inform your students about your use of email . The following guidelines suggest ways of structuring your email exchanges with students. Once you've decided how you will use email in your teaching, it's important to make these decisions clear to your students.

  • Recognize the value of one-to-many emails . In the classroom, it's not unusual that a question articulated by one student is a live question for many students. If a student emails you to ask a question that is generally relevant to the class, you might send your response to the entire class. In many instances, it's a good idea not to include in your response the name or email address of the student who asked the question.

  • Use email messages to establish course/teaching FAQ . If a question is asked often, either in the same class or from semester to semester, consider adding it and your response to it to a course Frequently Asked Questions collection.

  • Consider establishing email office hours . If you've published office hours, students know when they can expect to find you to ask a question about the class. It would be helpful to them also to know when they might expect a response to an email message about the class. The notice here could be something rather general (e.g., "I generally check email only once a day.") or specific (e.g., "I will respond to student email messages between 2:00 and 3:00 on Tuesdays and Thursdays.") You are free to respond at other times, just as you are free to be available for student appointments at times other than your stipulated office hours. But it's important for students to know when they can reasonably expect an answer to an email message.

  • Assign pre- or post-class email messages . Depending on the size of the class, consider requiring students to email a question about the reading to you before the class starts. A quick skim of these emails can give you a sense of the students' understanding of the material and shape your approach to it during the class session. Similarly, requiring students to email a question they have about the issues discussed in a particular class can give you a sense of the effectiveness of that discussion.

  • Shift some email exchanges to face-to-face discussions . Some matters are better discussed in person than via email. In some instances, one might respond to a student email with a request that the student come to the office for a face-to-face discussion.

Threaded Online Discussions

A threaded discussion is one in a response to a particular message is nested under the message to which it is a response. The nesting is usually indicated in the online environment by indentation, much as the organization of major and minor points is indicated in a formal outline by indentation.

  • Decide whether students will be allowed to initiate threads . Some faculty prefer to set the context for each discussion, whether the discussion is face-to-face or online. Others allow students to initiate discussions in one or both environments.

  • Is the threaded discussion a repository for course knowledge or a forum for student exploration? Can students expect that you will correct misconceptions that surface in the discussion?

  • Make clear to students the terms on which you will participate in the online discussion . Will you be an active participant, committed to reading every post by every student? Or will you read only some of the posts? If you post, should students read your posts as decisive statements on the topics or as exploratory and questioning prompts?

  • How will student posts be evaluated? If you are evaluating student postings to the online discussions, by what criteria will you be evaluating them?

  • Read and evaluate a student-selected portfolio of postings rather than reading all of the postings . Including the online discussion in the grading rubric of the course doesn't require reading and grading every student's every posting. Instead, ask students to assemble a portfolio of postings at the end of the semester and comment on these postings. A student might be asked to comment on three different postings she made during the semester. Or she might be asked to comment on a particular exchange in which she participated. Your evaluation can then be multi-layered, considering the posts themselves, her decision to select the particular posts she selects, and her commentary on them.

  • Structure the requirements for posting so that there is a critical mass of participation early in the course . Just as a class that emphasizes discussion will succeed for students only if they come to class, an online discussion will succeed only if students log in. Similarly, just as it's important to establish the expectations of such face-to-face discussion early in the semester, it's important to establish similar expectations in the online environment.

  • Build in connections between online and face-to-face discussion . Consider assigning students the task of developing more fully in the online environment a point that was introduced in the face-to-face discussion. Even if you require only a small number of students to do this each week, their postings will constitute a critical mass that will entice others who aren't required to post that week to visit the discussion to see what they might learn. Similarly, if you regularly introduce points in the face-to-face discussion that you read in the online discussion, this will demonstrate to students that you find that discussion valuable.


Services for Individuals: Center for Teaching consultants are available to work with Vanderbilt instructors interested in introducing online writing into their classes.


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