Building a prompt: Characteristics of prompts
As promised, in this post I want to describe several characteristics of good prompts:
- A clear, succinct subject line. Also, if your discussion/messaging software allows it, encourage students to change the subject when appropriate, i.e., when the conversation has gone in a different direction.
- Clear, direct language. Think about OWI Principle 3 Effective Practice 3.1: “When text is the primary medium, OWI teachers should use written language that is readable and comprehensible” (12).
- Salutation/greeting. The salutation/greeting is valuable territory: Don’t waste it. You have a chance to use your voice. Sometimes you may be formal. Sometimes you may be welcoming, friendly, or even playful. Plus, you want students being clear about who the audience of their posts are: Often, they reply to a particular person but don't indicate this in their salutation/greeting. You should model this: “Dear students” or something similar is fine.
- Goal or objective. With a few words, you can make the goal of the prompt clear.
- Specific instruction. What are students to do in this thread? Sometimes “just write” is good enough. Sometimes it’s not.
- Context. Make it clear how the thread the prompt begins will fit into what is happening in the course.
- Minimal number of questions and scaffolding. This is a key area in which teachers get into trouble, I find: they overdo it with prompt complexity and length, forgetting that both they and the students will build the conversation as it goes; you don’t need to front-load everything.
- Further anchoring of prompt to material/texts in the course. Many first-year programs in particular have required, program-wide texts, and I have seen teachers struggle to find ways to use these texts in their courses. You can almost always anchor your prompts to some lesson or aspect of the writing book you are using in your course – look for ways to do that. By the way, I find this type of connecting works better in online writing courses than in onsite courses.
- Possible broadening of topic. Students’ main goal may be analyzing an argument, but at the end of a prompt, you can also ask their stances on the argument’s subject matter. I find these subtopics get picked up at the end of the week.
- Complimentary closing. Like the salutation/greeting, this is valuable space that is often squandered. You can overtly invite questions and comments. You can also get a lot of voice/personality mileage out of a few words: “Interested in what you have to say” can be an encouraging close to a prompt.
- Sign off. If you're going to be "Prof. Warnock" to your class, write that. You may be "Dr. Warnock." You may be "Scott."
- Works cited. If appropriate, do it. I ask students to cite in their posts, and I think I should model that practice.