Student Learning Commons: Writing Strategies for Online Learners

As an online learner, you rely heavily on writing to communicate with your instructor and classmates. These strategies will help enhance the quality and professionalism of your written communication, both within and outside the virtual classroom. 


Discussion forums

In most online courses, you participate through discussion forum postings. Postings usually count in some way toward your course grade, so it’s essential to keep track of when postings are due and plan regular times to participate.

receiving email

For postings, keep in mind that quantity usually matters less than quality. Your instructor may consider depth of content, thoughtfulness of the response, and your ability to support a position with evidence (e.g. course readings, experiences, sources). To initiate conversation, try ending a new posting with a question, responding to someone else's posting, or adding a related thought or experience to a posting. Participating in online conversations about your subject matter not only reduces feelings of isolation but can also serve as a vital part of your learning process.

Your instructor may provide a rubric or set of standards for exemplary postings. Keep these standards in mind as you draft and revise your postings.

You may not always get a speedy reply to your posting. Keep in mind that others may need time to consider what you’ve said or asked, or time to compose a reply. They may also be logging into the course on different days.



Emails and online postings

sending email

Non-Western audiences may prefer an indirect, more relational message, which could include expressing good wishes at the start. In Western cultures (including academia), readers generally expect an email to express the main purpose or key message in the first sentence, to stay on topic and not repeat information, and to be specific and brief (especially for mobile devices).


Subject line

Emails and forum postings should have a subject line that

  • concisely reflects your key message
  • accurately represents the content of your message (in general, avoid multiple topics in a single email or posting)
  • does not contain ALL-CAPS, exclamation marks, or “net-speak.” This applies to the body of the message as well.
  • is polite and professional in tone.

If you want to introduce a different topic when replying to a discussion thread, revise the subject line or begin a new thread.

For emails related to your course, consider including the course name in the subject line.



It’s considered courteous to greet the recipient of an email or discussion forum posting. Here are some guidelines for choosing a greeting:

  • “Hey” is very informal—appropriate for family, friends, or people you know well, but not usually appropriate for course-related communication.
  • “Hi” is considered informal or familiar—appropriate if you have established a relationship with the recipient(s). 
  • “Hello” is slightly more formal but still friendly—appropriate for a course instructor or professional contact.
  • “Dear” is formal. Some students prefer to use “Dear Professor” or “Dear Dr. [Surname]” the first time they communicate with a course instructor or professional contact. This strategy is always considered courteous, and the instructor or professional may establish a less formal tone in his/her response.
  • If you can’t tell from the name whether your recipient is male or female and the recipient doesn’t have a title (e.g. “Dr”), use the entire name in your greeting.

You may be tempted to omit a greeting and begin with the recipient’s name. However, some readers consider this style too abrupt.


Reply to all

In replying to an email with multiple recipients, check whether the message is set to “reply to all” before you send your response. Is it necessary for everyone to see your reply? Should your reply be private?


Broadcast emails

If you need to email multiple recipients and they might not know each other, put their individual addresses in the BCC line. This reduces the possibility of an address being “phished” and also makes it faster for mobile users to download and read the message.



Emoticons (“smileys”) are culturally specific, so use them with care. Make sure they are appropriate for the context and audience of your message. Some instructors occasionally use emoticons in discussion forums to help foster warmth and convey personality. If in doubt, let your instructor set the tone.



Netiquette is about showing common courtesy to and consideration of others through your written communication, even when you are facing stressful situations such as—

Panic attack

Before you send a frantic call for help or a last-minute request for an extension, remember that your instructor and support staff are not available 24-7. Keep your email or posting clear and reasonable; don’t let your frustration show in the subject line or the body.

Negative message

If an email or forum posting upsets you, do not reply immediately. Give yourself some time—even a few minutes—to “cool off.” Consider whether the writer actually intended to offend; perhaps certain word choices have conveyed an inappropriate tone. When replying, don’t attack or be on the defensive; use neutral language.

(The Basics of Netiquette offers more guidelines and links to other Netiquette resources.)

Correct expression

Spelling and proofreading

Save your message as a draft and check for major errors before you send it. Most word processors and course management systems have built-in spell-check functions; use them. Always double-check the correct spelling of names, including your instructor’s! Note that spell checkers will not catch sound-alike spelling errors (homonyms) like its/it’s, so in addition, you should proofread your message line by line. Even reading it out loud can help.

Sentence structure

As with all good writing, use complete sentences in emails and postings. You can enhance clarity by keeping subjects and main verbs closely together (which also helps reduce errors in subject-verb agreement and verb form, for example). Correct punctuation, including commas, is also essential for clarity.



Even if you think your message is routine or unimportant, your best attempt at clarity and professionalism always matters.