Asynchronous Discussions – and why you should use them

‘Discussion enables students to find expression for their own thought, to have it challenged, to place this new idea in relation to the first, and through the resolution of that potential discrepancy develop a more elaborated or better articulated expression of their thought. That need for checking and confirming thoughts is fundamental.’ Diana Laurillard

It would appear that those who are not involved in discussions are at a distinct disadvantage to those who do. Does this mean that the more introverted students in your cohort are likely to miss out on important development? It’s certainly something to consider.

Here are 4 essential considerations in making discussions work for you:

  • Know why you are using them
  • Let your students know why you are using them
  • Define the expectations
  • Get the ball rolling and stay involved

Know why you are using them

Discussions can greatly assist in the processing of content. As Laurillard states above, the opportunity to articulate what students ‘think’ they know helps to expose the reality of that thought. It is through this social evaluation that deeper construction of knowledge is made more possible, if facilitated appropriately.

Asynchronous discussion affords the participant more time to consider what they read and to generate a more composed and thoughtful response (Gorski et al, Bonk et al). When the response is based on the checking of what is read against personal thought and notes and readings from within the course, the student benefits from increased exposure to the content which strengthens the memory of it, but it also encourages connections to be made with the representations being offered by peers, building elaborations for future reference.

This idea of increased exposure to content is why asynchronous discussion can be so useful compared to face to face discussion, Hara et al suggesting that higher education students can read significantly faster than listening to peers’ answers, resulting in an average asynchronous task requiring a student to consume approximately 6000 words, compared with a quarter of that in a face to face discussion. This is probably why Althaus (1997) found that higher grades resulted with increased discussion. All of the above in combination with the idea that in an increased online context, discussion boards and forums can generate a sense of community, serves as compelling proof of their efficacy.

Let your students know why you are using them

Like other pedagogies employed in the classroom, it is important to explain their purpose to the students. Teaching them about the processes you use is likely to foster greater resilience and perseverance in learning contexts that become ‘desirably difficult‘, and Ellis et al suggest that helping students adopt richer conceptions of what they stand to gain through discussion leads to improved student progress. Improving students’ metacognition of discussions is also strengthened when the type of discussion is clearly stated. Tim Klapdor at Adelaide University talks of several possible reasons for having a discussion, including exploring open ended questions, sharing examples, sharing opinions, sharing experience, asking for peer review or enjoying a debate, and when these purposes are kept in mind together with the level of complexity you require students to engage in, which may be driven by a taxonomy such as Bloom’s or SOLO, the explicitness of the task is likely to facilitate a more directed engagement from students. Christopher et al in fact warn against failing to provide students with a rubric or expectations for engagement.

Define the expectations

Once the type of task is made clear, providing other parameters is likely to decrease extraneous cognitive load. Modelling how to engage in this type of pedagogy is crucial to elicit the most efficient learning from your students. Feenberg suggests that developing students’ meta-communication from the beginning will inevitably lead to less ‘correction’ later of decreased or inappropriate engagement. Clear and explicit rules of engagement, how to be constructively critical, what tone and style should be employed, can and should all be modelled for the student to mitigate against misinterpretation. This may involve you providing such an example as a pinned post in the discussion area for students to refer and check against. Goffman’s game theory provides food for thought also: perhaps a discussion could be more like a jam session, with each participant taking a turn at “improvising” a contribution to the group’s performance – the teacher acting like a relaxed conductor? Helping students think about discussion in such a way may lead to greater interest in the process.

Articulating ‘what a good one looks like’ would also include length of response, and also really importantly, linking ideas to real world contexts, experiences likely to be experienced in the workplace, or to other students’ posts.

Other conversations about discussion etiquette would be necessary: giving peers time to respond etc. How many interactions are necessary is also worth explicitly stating, and of course, because those who post early are likely to be at a disadvantage to those who post later (because they can read more responses to evaluate their thoughts), it may be necessary to demand more than one interaction. As such, don’t be afraid to use the discussion as an assessment to ensure such pedagogy is utilised.

Get the ball rolling and stay involved

As it can be seen, both you and your students having a clear understanding of what the discussion should involve is imperative. The depth of response will of course be a function of the development of students’ schema, but if application and evaluation of content is possible, prompting the discussion with a response that does just that sets the tone and expectations for future responses. Hara et al are clear in this: without the starter, responses tended to be more random and less interactive.

This getting the ball rolling also removes the very real barricade of not wanting to be the first to post; not wanting to say the wrong thing; not wanting to look like a fool. This phenomenon is likely to be correlated with the size of the group involved, and this is why in early undergraduate courses, you beginning the discussions is so important. In large groups, students can fall into the trap of being learning bystanders, acquiring knowledge but never testing whether they can express it. Breaking large cohorts into groups may work to ensure every student is getting the most out of the discussion. A method to generate a response based on a range of views could be to have each member of a group use another group’s response as a stimulus.

Teacher presence is vital in a discussion forum. But it is indeed an artform. Too much presence is not only time consuming, but stifles the chance for students to work out issues and misconceptions on their own, something they can do more easily in asynchronous discussions through the extended exposure to the content and ideas. Interestingly, Tomic et al state that too much teacher intervention can also prematurely move the debate forward. Having said that, altering the direction of discussions if there appears to be an ingrained misconception is necessary. The right balance provides students with the needed scaffolding when appropriate, and it is this as well as an encouraging and acknowledging tone that makes students feel supported in the discussion, and indeed a part of a community whose collective wisdom they can benefit from.

Conclusion

Simple – discussions, when set up and moderated carefully are likely to improve student learning.

References

Althaus, S. L. (1997). Computer-mediated communication in the university classroom: An experiment with on-line discussions. Communication Education, 46(3), 158–174.

Christopher, Mary M.; Thomas, Julie A.; and Tallent-Runnels, Mary K., Raising the Bar: Encouraging High Level Thinking in Online Discussion Forums (2004). Faculty Publications: Department of Teaching, Learning and Teacher Education. 266.
https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/teachlearnfacpub/266

Goffman, E. (1961) “Fun in Games”, in Encounters, New York: Bobbs-Merrill

Gorski, P., Heidlebach, R., Howe, B., Jackson, M., & Tell, S. (2000). Forging communities for educational change with e-mail discussion groups. Multicultural Perspectives, 2(4), 37–42.

Hara, N., Bonk, C.J. & Angeli, C. (2000). Content analysis of online discussion in an applied educational psychology course. Instructional Science 28: 115–152, 2000. Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands

Laurillard, D. 2012. Teaching as a Design Science. Building Pedagogical Patterns for Learning and Technology. Routledge, New York.

I’m Paul Moss. I’m a learning designer at The University of Adelaide. I’m on Twitter too

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