Go The Distance: Academic Writing – Discussion forums

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1. How to write in distance learning discussions

Welcome back to Academic Writing – our series with the activities and tips to help you become a top-class writer. This time we're looking at a slightly less formal, but very important aspect of writing in distance learning: the language of online discussion.

Having discussions with your peers is an important part of academic study. We do this both face to face and over the internet on forums. When you write something on a forum, it is called a 'post'. We also use this as a verb, so you 'post' something on a forum. When a discussion starts with the first post, the conversation is referred to as a 'thread'.

It is important to think about the type of language you use on forums. When we talk face to face, we use facial expressions and change our tone of voice to show exactly how we feel. We can't do this when we're communicating online – so what should you do in your distance learning discussions? Scroll down to find out with our academic writing activities!

2. Challenge 1: What's online forum etiquette?

To do: Let’s start with some basic forum etiquette (how to behave). You don’t want to make a bad impression with your first post! We're going to give you five tips for good online behaviour – can you guess what they are? Click the image to find out!

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3. Challenge 2: Do you know internet language?

Faster and easier communication

Since the dawn of the internet, people have been finding ways of making communication faster and easier - such as using acronyms, where a word is made from a series of letters, each one representing a word from a phrase. Here’s a very common internet acronym:

lol (or LOL)

Have you seen this before? It means ‘Laugh Out Loud’. It is very common in forums, and shows that you think something is funny. If something is REALLY funny, use capital letters: LOL!

To do

What do these acronyms mean? Write down what you think – you can check your answers with our guide to acronyms later on this page.

  • BBL
  • CU
  • DAE
  • IDK
  • IMO
  • NGL
  • OP
  • ROFL
  • TBH
  • TL;DR
  • TTYL

Check our acronyms guide

Click on the button to download our guide to acronyms to check your answers. How many did you get right? You'll also learn about using emoji – the useful little pictures you can find on your smartphones and social media apps.

4. Asking questions in an online discussion

As a distance learner, you will need to ask questions on your online forum to ask for help, get information and to participate in discussions. We can ask questions either as 'direct' questions, or indirect questions.

Direct questions

These are very common when you're talking to someone you know, or have spoken to before. Question words are very common in direct questions. These include 'who', 'what', 'when', 'where', 'why' and 'how'. Here's an example: 'Where did you find that information?'

In direct questions, the order of the auxiliary verb and the subject is like this: 'HAVE YOU finished your assignment?'

Indirect questions

Indirect questions are very common in English because they sound more polite. Politeness is important in Western academic culture, so we love indirect questions! Let’s compare a direct question to an indirect question:

Direct: 'Where is that information?' Indirect: 'Could you tell me where that information is?'

When we make indirect questions, we use longer phrases – with question word order – at the beginning. In this example, ‘Could you tell me...’ is the longer phrase: it makes the question less direct – and therefore more polite. Notice the position of the verb 'is'. When we use a longer phrase at the beginning of an indirect question, the rest of the question uses statement word order.

Here are some more examples of polite questions: 'Do you think it is a good idea?' 'What are your thoughts regarding this issue?' 'Would you mind helping me?' 'Would it be possible to tell me more about this?'

No wh- question word? Do this...

Direct questions often start with wh- question words. But how do you make a direct question without a wh- question word into an indirect question?

Direct: 'Is this OK?' Indirect: 'Could you tell me if this is OK?'

That’s right. If there is no wh- question word in a direct question, use 'if' or 'whether' to make it into an indirect question.

5. Challenge 3: Checking indirect questions

Time to test yourself! Click on the image to see if you can identify which of our indirect questions are correct and which are wrong!

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6. Review – and more practice

Get on with online discussion

Let's review what we've learned so far about the language used in online discussions.

  • Online discussion forums are a great way to share and improve your knowledge, and can lead to better grades.
  • You need to know how to behave – good online etiquette is important, so check the rules and expectations of your discussion forum.
  • Acronyms like LOL for 'laugh out loud' and IMO to mean 'in my opinion' are good for fast online discussions – just remember they're quite informal!
  • Use direct questions when you're talking to someone you know or have spoken to before – they're short and to the point.
  • Use indirect questions when you want to be more polite. Just remember to get the word order right!


That's it for now! Next time we'll be looking at the language you need to turn your projects into presentations. In the meantime, click the 'Downloads' button to get a free pdf worksheet with more activities on questions, and agreeing and disagreeing in online discussions.