Using Writing to Mentor Students in an Online Course

For several semesters I’ve had the privilege of working as a teaching assistant (TA), or online mentor, for a distance-learning Master in Social Work (MSW) program. My primary duty as a mentor is to monitor and provide feedback for the online forums that students are assigned to participate in every week.

Usually, students are assigned to groups and have to complete a group forum (or discussion board (DB)) as well as an individual DB. The number of students range from 12 to 15. At first glance, one might think, “what can be easier than monitoring and responding to online discussion boards?” That’s what I thought when I very first agreed to be a TA.

It’s easy if you all write to the students is “great job” or “good work.” Of course, that’s exactly the feedback that we tell them is insufficient when responding to their classmates’ posts. They won’t get credit for one-liners; they are expected to provide their classmates with responses that show they actually read the posts.

Could I possibly do any less for them? Of course not, but I learned the hard way that writing substantive feedback takes planning, organization, and creativity.

As soon as I have the syllabus and course schedule, I mark the deadlines for each DB on my calendar, including whether the DBs are group or individual (or both) and if any have multiple parts. I plan to give myself at least an evening or two to write my feedback, knowing that most students won’t get their posts in until the last minute. Still, the sooner I start writing, the easier it will be for me to finish up on schedule.

Keep a spreadsheet with the students’ names, the groups they’ve been assigned to, and a column for each DB that they will have to complete. Although the course utilizes an online grade book, keeping my own records enables me to stay organized without always having to go online. Including notes such as the student’s location, current job, major life event (just had a baby) etc., also helps to keep you oriented when a student starts slipping in their assignments. Most of my students are working professionals, with children, and major life events tend to be common.

I developed five general precepts for providing feedback to students’ DB posts.

1. Address the students as you would if you were in a traditional classroom. Rather than write individual responses to the individual posts, I wrote one feedback for each group and/or individual forum, and then email my feedback to the whole class, including the instructor. The whole class then has the benefit of learning from each other’s efforts without having to go back to the DBs and slog through individual posts. The instructor has the benefit of judging both the students’ and my performance on the DBs.

2. For group posts, highlight a line or two from each group’s post in your feedback. Help them learn the kinds of responses you’re looking for in the DBs by providing these highlights and integrating them into your feedback.

3. For individual posts, select a few of the best and integrate them in your feedback, giving kudos to those students. You shouldn’t try to acknowledge every student in each feedback you provide. Rather, use this technique to highlight a few students at a time. This way you can encourage those students to continue to do well and stimulate the other students to work a bit harder in the hopes that you will eventually single them out for kudos.

4. At the same time, don’t leave any student out. Even the most taciturn student will eventually get acknowledged in my feedback. In my most recent class, I had students who wrote posts of no more than three or four lines while a few students wrote five-paragraph essays. I made a point to always find something positive to say about anyone’s posts.

5. Do not name students or use direct quotes from their posts to illustrate “bad” writing. Sure, there were plenty of posts that were hard to read because the students didn’t spellcheck or proofread before hitting the submit button. There were students who didn’t always complete all parts of the DB assignment. But public criticism would only alienate these students and their classmates. I usually include a general statement in my feedback, reminding all of the students to write and edit in a word processor first and then post their response. And if certain students still don’t get it, I just email them directly and see if they need help in using the online discussion boards.

If you want to be an effective mentor for an online course, plan to do a lot of writing. Writing is what links you to each student. Writing is how you demonstrate what they need to do to be successful in the course. Writing is how you show them that you care about their success.

So, have you ever worked as a mentor for an online course? Besides your own blog, have you ever used your writing as a mentoring tool?

3 thoughts on “Using Writing to Mentor Students in an Online Course

  1. Online classes do allow much more flexibility than traditional classes, but I can understand why your wife might prefer the traditional classroom, especially when studying social work. Social work is all about human interaction and what better way to get hands-on experience than by interacting in a classroom. What I like most about the online MSW degree program is that it makes getting an advanced degree possible for students who do not have a MSW program near them. So many MSW degree-seeking students are working professionals and as such don’t have the luxury of moving in order to study for their degree.

    That said, I’ve developed a personal preference for online course work because, like you, I like the freedom of studying when it’s convenient for me. Unfortunately, too many programs at my local universities are still confined to traditional, daytime classes, which makes it very inconvenient for a working professional such as myself to complete a program in a reasonable period of time.

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  2. My wife is in the MSW program at ASU. She prefers in-person classes, but has taken a few online ones. Personally, I loved doing my classes online, it allowed me to do most of my work after two in the morning, when I was finally ready to write.

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