Study guides and answer keys are common items in every classroom, and for self-motivated students, they may be all that is necessary to prepare for an exam. However, for students with lower proficiency or lower motivation, more coaching may be necessary to help them get on the right track. One solution is the private forum feature on American University of Kuwait's Learning Management System (LMS), which can be a useful way to help students store documents, assess their own knowledge, and build test prep materials. Students can easily access documents online without worrying about losing information. Moodle Advanced Forum is an excellent tool, but the idea can be replicated in any forum-type activity that can be adjusted for private groups. Once private forums have been created, students can begin filling them with classwork and assignments that will form a study portfolio for the class.
There are several benefits to using the private forum feature, including improved organization for both student and teacher. Moodle has a search feature that enables students to quickly locate files pertaining to issues they want to focus on. Additionally, Moodle allows students to send a message or question to the instructor, and the message will link to the correct forum post. This ensures the student doesn't forget to attach a file or attach incorrect files, which wastes time and causes confusion. The questions and answers are also stored within the forum, so they don't get lost in a full email inbox, and this line of direct communication between student and instructor can remain open throughout the entire semester.
Other benefits for students include learning about self-direction and becoming more autonomous. Ideally, as the semester progresses, students will learn how to decide which materials they need to add to the forum without the instructor prompting them. In addition, they will take more responsibility for bookmarking and following up on materials that they are struggling with in class. This is in contrast to students asking, “What do I need to study?” or repeating the same question to the teacher. By the end of the semester, the student will also see how dynamic the portfolio really has been and be reminded of the amount of information covered in the course.
Forums have a number of benefits for instructors as well. First, they ensure the Student Learning Objectives (SLOs) have been covered in class because the SLOs serve as the foundation for the course. Using the search feature, the instructor can type in the keywords of the SLO and get a dated list of posts linked to each SLO. Forums also allow instructors to spot check students' posts. For instance, if a student has a particularly low grade, an instructor can check random posts to get a sense of how well the student is keeping up. If it turns out the student needs help, the teacher can reach out to him or her.
There are multiple ways to use the private forum. Forums can be completely student directed, where students decide which materials they will contribute to their forums. Alternatively, forums can be instructor directed, where the instructor requires certain items to be submitted to the forum for grades or record-keeping purposes.
Collaboratively-built answer keys
This activity is a great way for students to begin self-assessing their own work in class and building awareness of their weakest skills. Instructors upload a Microsoft Word worksheet to the forum and students first complete the online exercises online individually. It's a good idea to direct students to fill in their answers in a specific color. For example, students can fill in their answers in blue, or for multiple choice questions, highlight their answers in yellow. The collaboration begins when the class reviews the answers to the worksheet together. As the correct answers are given, students mark or type the correct answer on their own worksheets using dark green to make it easy to differentiate between the student's response (blue or yellow) and the correct response. They do not delete their incorrect answers; instead, they simply add the correct answer for comparison purposes later on. If students have a question about an answer or feel they need to pay extra attention to the question during exam prep, they are directed to highlight the question in red as a reminder. Once all the answers have been explained, each student uploads his or her document to his or her own private forum. The instructor can see posts from the entire class, but students can only see their own posts. Instructors can review the posts to see if there are patterns in the questions or concepts that students are getting wrong. After class, students can review the posts to see what they need more assistance with and seek the help of other classmates or the instructor if necessary.
Dynamic study portfolio/glossary of classwork
Here “dynamic” refers to the constantly evolving nature and size of the students' private forums. This type of study portfolio can be used for test preparation and self-study. Based on their personal strengths and weaknesses, students save classwork and handouts in their forums; each forum is then tailored to the students' personal needs. Students also have the ability to bookmark posts that are especially important, which not only guides their attention, but also makes it simple for instructors to see what students are still unsure or curious about. By the end of the semester, students will have created a chronological log of the materials that were covered in the class. They can export these materials to a flash drive if they would like to use them in future classes. Students seem to feel motivated as they experience the dynamic aspect of the portfolio. That is, students see how the portfolio, and consequently their grasp of the subject, grows throughout the semester as they add new study guides and answer keys.
Setting up a private forum
Setting up a forum is relatively simple. On Moodle, it's listed under “Add an Activity or Resource” in the edit menu. The key point is that the forum is set up to be privateby creating a group where each student is the only member. This is usually located under the grouping heading, which allows the instructor to set the number of students per groups as one. These settings will ensure that students see only their own work and posts. If your LMS offers a method to mark posts as important or substantive, that should be enabled as well. It's a good idea to test the privacy of the forum with one student or with a low stakes activity before moving too far into the semester.
Naming forum posts
Naming your discussion posts (the method by which you disseminate information, worksheets, or other documents to students) is very straightforward. A good practice is to use keywords from your course's SLOs or the main ideas or concepts from weekly lessons. For example, in a writing classes, you may focus on sentence types. Therefore, the easiest way to name this forum post would be “Sentence Types” in the subject line and “simple, compound, complex, compound-complex” in the message body. It's better to use keywords than sentences so you can make use of the search feature of the forum. Naming posts according to the SLOs makes it easy for instructors to check that they have covered all of the SLOs in the course during the semester. After you've named your post, you can attach any relevant files, such as answer keys or worksheets, before submitting the post to the forum.
Michelle Kunkel and Sherrie Smith are instructors in the Intensive English Program at the American University of Kuwait.