What Is a Discussion Paper? An Essay vs. Discussion Post

What Is a Discussion Paper? An Essay vs. Discussion Post

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Samantha W.
Apr 29, 2024
9 min

A discussion board post is a short-ish written assignment that students are expected to submit to participate in so-called discussion boards or online learning forums. Professors create online spaces for learners to share their knowledge, engage in meaningful discussions, and demonstrate their understanding of the material studied.
First-year students often confuse discussion posts with typical essays or other written assignments. So, what’s the difference between an essay and a discussion board post? An essay is a longer and more rigorously structured written format that is supposed to show the student’s knowledge and academic writing skills.
In contrast, a discussion board post is typically informal. It’s as much about talking back and forth with one’s classmates (while sticking to the assignment topic) as it is about showing off one’s familiarity with the assigned readings. To an extent, it falls under the umbrella of peer-to-peer learning.
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How Long Should a Discussion Board Post Be?—Less Is More

Although a discussion board post is normally a short assignment that doesn’t follow the traditional essay structure and is, therefore, much shorter, there are no universal rules regarding the appropriate length of a post. It all depends on your professor’s specific requirements.
Even if there’s no designated word count in the instructions, know that it’s always okay to email your professor to clarify how long they expect your discussion board posts and responses to be.
However, we recommend focusing not on the length per se but on how comprehensive your discussion board post is. Here are a few rules that it is supposed to follow, and these rules determine the length of the post:
  • The post must answer the prompt thoroughly.
  • The post must demonstrate that you’ve read and critically engaged with the assigned readings.
  • Try to include a real-life example or a relevant personal story in your post whenever possible.
  • Most professors expect students to add a thought-provoking question or two at the end of the post to further the discussion between classmates.
Unless otherwise specified in the instructions, don’t forget to answer your classmates’ posts as well—although those responses must be separate and don’t count toward the word count of your initial post.

How Many Words Should a Discussion Board Post Be Long Ideally?

Still, if you want to know the exact word count of an average discussion board post, the answer is between 250 and 400 words. That’s what you will find in most instructions for discussion board assignments. That’s how much you need to answer every part of the discussion prompt thoroughly and critically.
As a discussion post isn’t a formal writing assignment, it’s not a big deal if yours is a bit longer or shorter than the professor's request. We wouldn’t recommend making it less than 200 words, or you won’t be able to add anything meaningful to the discussion. In turn, going above 500 words is inconsiderate. Your classmates and the professor must read all discussion board responses, so please respect their time.
But as long as your post is somewhere between 200 and 500, you should be fine. Most discussion board post assignments aren’t graded. At the end of the course, your discussion board participation adds a certain percentage to your final grade based on how many good posts and responses you’ve written. So, this shouldn't be an issue if your post is shorter, but you genuinely engage with your classmates’ posts.

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What to Say in a Discussion Post to Pass the Assignment

The number one thing you need to do in a discussion board post to make it a good one is to show that you’ve done the assigned readings and engaged with them critically. That’s one of the key purposes of discussion boards.
Also, your post must respond to the prompt. Try not to deviate from the topic, as no one likes tangents in student writing.
So, what belongs in a discussion post?
  • A clear answer to the prompt with arguments and examples from the assigned readings.
  • An example or story showing that you’ve thought of how the reading material relates to your personal or professional life (or public events everyone knows about).
  • A question or two at the end of the post inviting your classmates to enter a discussion with you.
If necessary, include in-text citations and references. Most professors don’t require those for discussion board assignments, though.

What Is A Discussion Essay? How Is It Different from a Post?

Students often confuse discussion board posts with discussion essays, which is understandable. However, to avoid losing points or potentially failing an assignment, you must clearly know what each of these two should look like.
So, what is a discussion essay?
Think of a discussion board post as a friendly yet engaging debate you have with a friend at a coffee shop. It’s shorter, less formal, and more fun. In turn, a discussion essay is closer to your presentation at a seminar. It’s longer and more formal, and you don’t typically have anyone to discuss the topic with. You’re doing all the discussing yourself and are expected to follow rigorous academic writing standards, including proper referencing and formatting. However, you must stay on topic in both and demonstrate that you’ve done the assigned readings.
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What Makes a Good Discussion Board Post? Are There Rules?

Once you’ve answered the question, “What is a discussion post?” you need to learn some rules of a healthy and productive discussion board. Most of these are self-evident, but still.
Be clear and concise. As a discussion board post is a short-form assignment, it must be clear and concise. Avoid unnecessary details and resist the temptation of going off on a tangent.
Follow the instructions. Your post must answer the prompt and include the elements your professor asks for. For example, if the instructions require you to include you to include a real-life example, don’t ignore this.
Be respectful, and use inclusive language. A welcoming tone invites more responses, not to mention that it affects your relationships with your classmates and the professor. Even if you disagree, be considerate and open-minded and acknowledge diverse perspectives.
Ask engaging questions and encourage interaction. Finally, do your best to encourage interaction. A question or two at the end of your post is normally a must; most instructions for discussion boards call for those. However, it’s also a good idea to include something like: “Please share your take on this.”

The Essential Elements of a Winning Discussion Post

To sum up everything we’ve discussed here, let’s once again answer the question, “What is a discussion post in college?”
A discussion board post is a short and informal writing assignment where you engage with the readings and share your thoughts with fellow learners in an online discussion board. The key elements of a good discussion post include the following:
  • A clear and straightforward answer to the discussion prompt;
  • Critical reflection of the assigned readings;
  • Understanding of the real-life implications of the material studied;
  • Personal stories and real-life examples;
  • Questions for your classmates that further the discussion.
A discussion post isn’t the same as a formal discussion paper, such as an essay.

An Afterword: What Belongs and Doesn’t Belong in a Discussion Post

Students new to discussion board assignments don’t always have a clear idea of what a discussion post should look like. Some struggle with the structure; others mistakenly google, “What is a discussion paper?” only to get the wrong set of requirements (once again, a discussion essay or paper isn’t synonymous with a discussion post).
Let’s look at some common questions students ask about the elements of a discussion board post.
Is it okay to include links? Yes, links are usually welcomed, especially if you genuinely think that your classmates will appreciate the article you’re referencing and that it relates to your topic. Don’t just add links for the sake of adding them.
Can I include a personal story? Yes, you can add something personal if it’s relevant and helps you get your point across. However, avoid including any sensitive or confidential information.
Should I include citations and references? This depends on your professor’s instructions. Some require references and in-text citations; others don’t. If you’re unsure, err on the side of caution. You won’t lose points for including a bibliography, even if it wasn’t required.
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A discussion board post is usually between 250 and 400 words long. It’s not a formal essay, so it’s best to stay brief while answering the prompt thoroughly. However, different professors have different instructions for online discussions; it’s always a good idea to double-check with yours before posting.
A discussion post prompt is a question or thought-provoking line your professor gives the class to write discussion posts in response to. It can be something like “Discuss the potential benefits and challenges of transitioning to renewable energy sources” or “Discuss the impact of social media on social relationships and individual identity.”
No, a discussion post is not the same as a discussion essay. An average post is much shorter and less formal, so you don’t need to focus on academic writing standards much—although you must remain respectful and on topic. A discussion essay is graded based on several criteria, including the formal essay structure.
Research suggests that an average student completes about ten discussion posts per course. That might seem like a lot, but it amounts to a post or so per week. This way, professors can see whether or not students are doing all the weekly readings and how well they understand the learning material.