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April 23, 2013

MIL Research Project: Medium Group Discussions – Prompt and Group Size Matters

The following post is part of my MIL research project and is the second of four posts that describe the asynchronous discussion assignments I used in the study: peer review/small group discussion, medium group discussion with very directive  guidelines, social bookmarking with Diigo discussions, and multimedia discussion forums. 

Successful discussion is all in the discussion prompt and size of the group. It’s pretty much a given that whole class discussion for classes with more than 20 students are not that effective because of the volume of content 20+ students can create, so dividing the class in half or in medium sized (5-10) groups can be beneficial and better for discussion. If students are overwhelmed with the volume of posts to read and respond to, often they opt out completely or try to participate partially. This means that they aren’t reading all the posts and thus not truly participating in the discussion. This is understandable; therefore, it’s best to create a discussion that minimizes the quantity of posts to allow students to be able to thoroughly read and participate in a discussion. Most LMS’s permit instructors to set up multiple discussions and assign students to select ones. If not, instructors can still set up multiple and instruct students as to which they are to participate. A helpful tip here is to set the options to “students must reply before seeing comments.” This prevents students from one group from reading and copying content from other groups they are not members of.

The number of participants in a discussion is not the only factor in its success. The questions or topics you have students discuss also play a factor. Discussion prompts are the written “springboard” from which online discussions are launched and are essential to encourage shared understanding (Du, Zhang, Olinzock, & Adams, 2008). Taking into consideration your purpose for the discussion, let that drive your discussion prompt. “Explicitly described and well-structured prompts support the students to interact and co-construct higher order knowledge” (Pedagogical Repository). For instance, in my ENG102 class, students are writing argumentative essays, so they are learning how to address opposing views and counter arguments in their papers. To help with this process, I have students participate in a discussion where each student is asked to present an argument that supports the thesis of the paper they are writing and briefly explain it to the group. Other students in the group are then instructed to provide a possible opposing view to that argument. Again they are asked to briefly explain the opposing view. And as a follow up each student who posted an original argument must now offer a counter argument to the opposing view that was posted in response to their argument. This gets students thinking about possible opposing view that they may not have thought of, but it also gives them the opportunity to test their counter argument skills. The discussion can end there or students can be instructed to provide feedback on whether they feel the counter argument was effective or whether or not it was presented correctly (accommodate or refute). It becomes a learning opportunity as well as another opportunity for students to provide feedback and connect with one another.

There are many alternatives to the usual whole class discussions that ask students to comment on readings in general. More focused and directive discussion prompts will get a better response from students. In her study, Nancy Bryant stated one of her biggest insights as, “The format and topic of the prompts influenced the amount of internalization for the students, as well as impacting the amount of self-directed research the students were willing to initiate. When the student had some control over their topic and format, their participation and quality of posts increased. The students asked more questions of one another and also generated more quality responses” (Brunsell). Check out the article for more common themes related to asynchronous discussion.

Related Posts: MIL Research Project: Peer Review & Asynchronous Discussion

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