Recently, my students have been struggling to participate in our online discussions about our assigned readings. Each week, I assign several short articles and a person to be the discussion leader in charge of each reading. That person posts a summary of the article and five questions for discussion. The questions have been really interesting, but tend toward personal reflection and experience rather than conversation about the article. I want students to connect their own experiences with the reading, so these questions are positive approaches to integrating the material with each student's life, but I've been asking them to make sure they connect their personal experience to specific moments in the text. They are having trouble doing this and keep insisting that the discussion leader has already posted a summary so anything they say about the text will be redundant. Redundant!

The answers they post read like this:
Most of my teachers have been great. They always consider everyone's opinions and make the classroom interesting.

This could be a response to just about anything: Do you like school? Who's your favorite teacher? Do you think your teachers are fair? Are your teachers doing a good job? How do you know whether your teachers are credible instructors?

And none of these questions or this sample answer has anything to do with a specific reading. So, I've been asking them to make a connection to the reading and then provide their personal experience: X author talks about how he sees teachers doing ________ in the classroom. His main concern is that ____________ and I agree because my experience shows _______________.

Providing context not only proves that the students have done the reading, but also limits the ways in which their answers can be interpreted.

The same is true for other kinds of communication. I find that I'll write emails to people asking several questions and the response comes back without clear answers for any of the questions. I write "What time do you want to meet up?" And my friend writes back "I think there will be 7 people there."

It's important to pay attention to the kinds of questions being asked, the reason for the questions, and what the audience wants to get out of those questions and answers. We need to recognize that the reason behind the answer matters, but make that information explicit. For example, my friend might mean that since there are going to be 7 people, we all need to talk together about when we want to meet, but that's not given as context for her answer.

People are rarely bothered by a few sentences of over-information, but a lack of information can cause a lot of confusion. Put things in context so that your meaning can't be mistaken, and you can demonstrate that you really do know what you're talking about!