Category: Writing

Category: Writing

It is common for students to think of online classroom discussions as being busywork. Some professors, too, see these as not very important and something to check off. Yet, online discussions can be important in various ways, including preparing for class papers. Yet, not all professors approach online discussions the same and some professors have never given much thought to the purpose of online discussions. Thus, it is important to remember that the approach I discuss here may not fit all courses.

Approach to Online Discussions

I view online discussions as similar to live discussions in the classroom. They serve a different purpose from essays and scholarly papers. When I am teaching in the classroom, my goal is to create a safe space where students can explore ideas. The same is true for online discussions. My hope is that students will play with ideas that they are not even sure they agree with. This is the exploration phase of developing one’s scholarly position. When it becomes too structured, then it limits the ability to freely explore ideas.

The online discussions are a place to receive feedback and compare one’s own view with other viewpoints that may not agree. For this to occur at optimal levels, it is important to maintain a dialogue approach rather than a debate approach. While it can be good to compare and even critique ideas in this forum, the overall goal is exploratory and developing one’s ideas. If it becomes about determining who is right, then the purpose has shifted and it limits the ability to attain the exploratory purpose of the online discussions.

Common Mistakes

In my experience, there are three common mistakes that I see frequently in classroom discussions:

1. Not Understanding the Professor’s Purpose. In my courses I often clarify the purpose of online discussions in the syllabus, the online discussion forum, and a video for the course, yet it is still common for students to not understand the purpose behind how I design the online discussions. This typically is a failure to read the syllabus and course materials! Yet, it can also be a function of following the expectations of previous professors. Always be sure to read the professors guidelines! If you do not understand the purpose after doing this, ask!

2. Summarizing. Summarizing is the most common error I experience. I have read the course readings and (hopefully) so have the other students. It is not very engaging or productive for anyone to read numerous summaries of the required reading. While I expect students to demonstrate they have done the reading, this can be done without summarizing. This can be done by engaging the required reading through critically thinking about the material, applying concepts to the real world, and comparing the ideas in the required reading to other theories and concepts.

3. Writing an Essay. Writing a short essay is different than what I expect from an online course discussion. An essay is more structured and should cite sources. In my courses, these will also be clearly labeled as an essay assignment! With online discussions, the dialogue should be freer. For example, in an essay referencing Rollo May’s The City for Myth, I would expect a citation in APA style with name and date in the text along with a reference section at the end. In an online discussion, my preference would be to note the idea was from May, but no citation with date or reference section is needed. In a live classroom discussion, it would not be necessary to try to verbally cite your sources in APA style! Yet, it is best to let people know where you are drawing your information from.

The Developmental Purpose

With a scholarly paper or an essay, it is important to engage the scholarly literature, support your assertions, and think through your ideas before presenting them. With the online discussions, you are playing with ideas, seeing what fits, and seeing what is important to you. When this is done well, it supports the development of later scholarly writing.

As a scholar, researcher, and writer, most of the ideas that I write about for conference papers, journal articles, and books  were first explored in dialogues with colleagues. Through these discussions I prepared the ideas and thought through them. Much of what I explored with my colleagues was not included in the final product because it did not fit with my thinking as I developed my ideas further. Yet, there are important aspects of the paper that originated in these dialogues and were refined through the conversations. Good scholarship does not occur in isolation–it occurs in a context and a community that supports the development of ideas. My hope is that the classroom discussions–whether online or in person–serve a similar purpose. They help us refine and develop the ideas that will become part of our later scholarship.

Category: Writing

Students frequently ask why good writing is emphasized instead of comprehension of the ideas. There are many answers to this, and the answers vary with one’s career trajectory. I teach mostly in graduate programs in psychology, which informs my answer to this question. I will first address why it is important for all students of psychology to learn to write. Next, I will consider APA style I will conclude addressing graduate students more specifically.

Why Writing in Important for All Psychology Students

If you are seeking a degree in psychology, it is likely that communication with others will play a prominent role in your career if you are planning to use your psychology degree. While some people communicate effectively orally while struggling with communication in written form, improving your communication in written form will positively impact your ability to communicate orally as well. Furthermore, academic writing influences the way you think about knowledge. Learning to support your assertions and avoid over-stating your arguments will help you improve your thinking skills. When considering many prominent issues in the world today, it is readily apparent why this is an important skill to develop.

Additionally, nearly every career path related to psychology is going to require some writing. If you are planning to go to graduate school, it is imperative to learn to write well. If you are planning to go straight into the workforce, then you will likely be required to begin using your writing skills right away. Many intelligent and talented individuals struggle in succeeding and progressing in their field because of their limitations with writing.

Last, learning to write well is a good way to show respect to your professors. Much of my time is spent grading papers. When the writing is poor, it is stressful and takes more time. There are many reasons why it is good to not cause additional stress to your professors! For one, they may writing your letters of recommendation someday. When writing these letters, you do not want them reflecting upon how stressful it was to read you papers.

Why APA Style?

Many students become frustrated learning APA style and often even develop good critiques of APA style. Yet, if you are going to be in the field of psychology it is best to master the professional writing style of your profession. I have worked with many students who have lost countless hours to corrections because of their resistance to learning APA style. Furthermore, there are aspects of APA style that impact how the reader interprets your sentence. For example, there are variations in the use of commas in different professional styles of writing. In APA style, you place a comma before “and” in strings of three or more. If you do not do this, it can change the meaning of the sentence. At other times, it may confuse your reader causing them to spend more time trying to understand what you are saying.

When papers are not written in good APA style, it takes longer to read and grade the papers. When reference citations are inaccurately placed, the professor may have to spend more time to determine if you are adequately supporting your assertions. When your punctuation is incorrect, the professor may have to read sentences a few times to make sure they accurately understand what you are stating. When you do not use headings correctly (or not at all) the professor may have to spend more time understanding how you are organizing your ideas. Not writing in good APA style can easily double the amount of time a professor spends grading your paper. Also, when the professor is distracted by the APA style errors, they may have more difficultly understanding the content you are trying to convey. Good writing helps your content stand out.

While APA style is not perfect, it does help individuals in professions that use APA style communicate with each other more clearly. If you are in one of those fields, it is in your best interest to take the time to learn APA style. While some students think, “I’ll have an editor do that” or “I’ll just use a program that does it for me,” in my experience, these add much more time and stress in the long run than just learning APA style. The programs that help individuals put their papers in APA style often create errors. The use of editors is expensive and is still time consuming. Learning APA style may take more time at the beginning, but saves you time and possibly money in the long run.

Why Good Writing is Essential in Graduate School

If you are in graduate school in psychology, you most likely are going to be required to write a thesis or a dissertation. If you have not mastered good writing by time you get to these tasks, they can be very painful experiences. I know of students who have spent several days just correcting APA style and similar writing errors on their dissertation. Additionally, if your writing is poor, professors may be hesitant to agree to serve on your thesis or dissertation committee.

When your writing is not strong, professors may spend more time focusing on providing feedback on the mechanics of  your writing, which distracts from providing feedback on the content of your paper. Students often will not receive as comprehensive of feedback on their papers when their writing is poor and requires attention from the professors. Students, too, will be spending more time focusing on the mechanics of writing instead of focusing on the content of their papers and the course.

When students enter graduate school, I strongly encourage them to prioritize mastering scholarly writing, including APA style, early in the program. The more one is able to accomplish this, the more they are able to focus on learning the content, mastering skills, and preparing for the more exciting aspects of their future profession.


Regardless of the path you are choosing in psychology, it is fairly certain that writing will be part of your professional life. Furthermore, your writing is a reflection upon you. In my career, I know that my writing abilities have helped create opportunities for me. Similarly, I know of talented professionals who have been held back in many ways because of their struggles with writing.

No one’s writing is perfect, and people often struggle in editing their own work. Personally, I am much more effective at copy-editing the writing of others as compared to copy-editing my own work. Professors and other scholars who review your writing most likely will have their own strengths and weaknesses in writing, and will be tolerant of the occasional error. This is different than writing in a way that shows you do not understand the mechanics of good writing and APA style, or writing that suggest you have not made an effort to proof-read your paper.

To conclude, even if you do not envision writing being a major part of your professional future, it is in your best interest to learn to write well.

We dishonor those early influential thinkers in our movement when we turn them into idols. We distort the message they were bringing to us and the message they lived in their lives. I believe (and hope) that if these figures were around today that their harshest critiques would be of the way we over-revere their contributions. We love and honor our heroes when we recognize their humanity. To be revered as an idol or infallible scholar is much less of an honor than to be revered as a human who within all the limitations of being human rose to contribute a unique voice and make an important, though imperfect, contribution worthy of a lasting influence on the history of humankind.

— Louis Hoffman, The Proper Use of Tradition and Scholarly Authority