As an online student is very likely that you care about the grade you have earned as it is an indicator of your progress in the class. You may have a general idea of what is required to earn the best grade possible but not always understand what it will take to improve your performance both in class discussions and with your written assignments. A common phrase that is used in online schools is substantive – and yet this concept may not be clear as to what it means. Students are also told that they need to demonstrate critical thinking and that may also seem to be vague, unless there is an explanation and format or example provided for you to use. I have been an online educator and worked with students about these very issues. While grading standards may vary among instructors and schools, there is a general standard that all college students should strive for with all of their work in the classroom.
Begin with the Assigned Reading
Whether you are preparing to answer a discussion question or write a paper, you should always start by familiarizing yourself with the required topic or subjects. Every learning activity is meant for you to consider the subject from a particular perspective or point of view. Even if you know something about the topic you can consider the assigned reading to be a refresher, which every student can benefit from. Too often students begin to write a response based upon what they know or believe, rather than create something that has been well-researched. As you review the assigned reading be sure that you are taking notes. There are several different note-taking methods and the most popular methods are Cornell and mind-mapping. The purpose of documenting notes as you read is to acknowledge any information you use in any of your writings, which will help you to avoid plagiarism. The purpose of reading is to develop or strengthen your knowledge base. It is not meant for you to fill in your paper or create a discussion question response. And while new students usually stop here there are still more steps to take.
Develop Your Initial Analysis
Now that you are familiar with the subject it is time to begin to develop your analysis. You can consider this step to be an initial rough draft. Take a look at the required instructions and then begin to write what you know and what you have learned from the assigned readings. This is your initial analysis. To demonstrate critical thinking you want to do more than just recall what you have read. Instead, you want to analyze and synthesize the information, and also think of new ideas, alternative solutions, and perspectives. This is how you show that you are developing something original rather than just using information you have acquired. Tip number one: academic papers and discussion posts are not research reports where you simply gather information from sources and report what you have read. Both require an original analysis that has been well documented.
Learn to Conduct Research
The next step is very important because now you are going to take your original analysis, which is likely opinion-based, and substantiate your ideas with research. The best place to begin is with any online library databases you may have access to. This is your best opportunity to obtain sources that are credible, academic, and scholarly in nature. Often what you will find in a scholarly journal article is an overview of a research study that was conducted. If you find something like this read through the entire article to determine what the research questions were and the purpose of the study that was conducted. You will find an abstract at the beginning of the article that provides an overview so you will know if this relates to what you are writing about. Be sure to read the concluding sections so you understand how this applies to the subject you are writing about. You also do not want to choose sources that are over five years old unless you check with your instructor first.
What most students utilize is an Internet search to find information. If you cannot find information in the online library databases then it is certainly understandable that you will search elsewhere. Before you use any source that you have found online make sure that the information is current, relevant, and credible. This requires that you take time to explore the website and find out information about the author or authors. If you have any doubt about the reliability of the source you are using than the best approach to take us to not source or talk to your instructor. Tip number two: an online source that lists anonymous for the author is generally not acceptable because it cannot be verified. Wikipedia and About.com are a type of resource that most schools do not want students to utilize. As another general rule, older sources should be used only for historical background information.
Completing the Process
Now that you are armed with your original analysis and research that supports the development of your thoughts and ideas, it is time to begin to put it all together. As you were reading through the research you found you should also have been taking notes in a manner similar to what was described for reviewing the assigned classroom readings. You can insert information and citations into your analysis, and you also want to analyze that information so that you demonstrate you are working with the information. What that means is you should never use a direct quote because all that does is fill in your paper or response, which minimizes your ability to demonstrate critical thinking.
Learn to paraphrase information so you show that you are not using that information. The way that I teach students to paraphrase information from their sources is to think about sitting in a classroom and then stating what they have learned from the sources they have read. By the time that you have added information from your sources and weaved into your analysis you will have your initial rough draft. Take time to edit it, read it aloud, and then complete any final edits before you submit it. The best recommendation that I can make is to use a Word document for everything you write so that you can take time to refine it, as well as utilize spelling and grammar checkers. Tip number three: as a general rule there should be no more than one in-text citation per paragraph unless you are presenting historical background information and need the support of your sources.
Becoming Practiced
Does every discussion question response require this level of depth? The answer is obviously no; however, as a college student it is expected that you will have well-developed posts so if you develop a habit of using the steps provided above you will find it is of benefit for all of your work. You can also hold yourself accountable for the work you complete by creating a standard that everything you do will be done with your very best effort. Be sure that you read all of the feedback provided by your instructors because they have an interest in your ongoing development. In addition, always ask questions anytime you need further guidance or clarification. The purpose of this process is to show that you can think for yourself and you don’t need to rely upon sources to complete your discussion question response or written papers. It also helps you move from writing an opinion piece into something more substantive. As you develop a pattern of working in this manner it will become a productive habit – and the outcome will be an improved learning experience and most likely an above average cumulative grade.

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