When Hayley Lake, lecturer at Eastern Washington University, got the opportunity to develop an online version of Survey of Alcohol & Drug Problems, a multidisciplinary course that draws students from a variety of majors and backgrounds, she knew that online discussions would be an essential feature of the course. She had taught the course in the face-to-face environment and saw a lot of room for improvement—despite the diversity of students and the inherent potential for lively discussions, the course lacked engagement and rigor.
She worked with instructional designer Patrick Lordan to address the shortcomings of the course by incorporating highly structured discussions and a discussion board audit. The 10-week course features one to two online discussions per week. To encourage student to get away from simply posting their opinions about the subject matter, they are required to research their posts and provide proper APA citations.
“I wanted my students to cite and support their comments because everybody has an opinion about alcohol and drugs. I want to know where they get [their opinions] and to make them credible opinions,” Lake says.
She also wanted to design the course so that students would reflect on their learning and there would be a sense of closure when the course ended. She and Lordan brainstormed ideas on how to accomplish this. In the process Lordan came across a ProfHacker blog post by an English professor who had students blog and do blog audits at the end of the course, essentially having students reflect on their postings and how their thinking progressed throughout the course.
The discussion board audit is the final assignment in the course in which each student analyzes his or her contributions to the discussion board. It's a more open-ended assignment than the discussion board discussions. Students do not need to provide citations. They are simply asked to go back and reread all of their posts and comments and reflect on them in a four-to-five-page paper. The following are suggested questions for the students to consider:
The responses to this assignment indicate that this is something new for the students. Other instructors don't ask them to do this type of metacognitive assignment. Some students may question why they are being asked to do this, but they eventually see the point. “They're surprised at how much they've improved,” Lake says. “At first they'll say, ‘I thought this was a stupid assignment. Why would I go back and look at all the work I've done?' Then they'll comment, ‘Oh, I've learned so much. My opinion on this has changed. My writing has improved. My research has improved. My critical thinking has improved.'”
In an analysis of four sections—two online and two hybrid—“you can see the same kind of excitement in the students,” Lordan says. Students typically mention improvement to their critical thinking, writing, time management, research, and study skills. They say they enjoyed the interaction and feedback of the discussions. They see the relevance of the discussions to the course content and the real world.
These are some student comments from this assignment.
“I've never taken a class that required me to look back at my earlier work and evaluate it … so my expectations were pretty low. However, as I read through my posts and comments, I saw significant growth.”
“My first thought when I saw the assignment was that it was just going to be busy work for us. I was wrong. I now have an appreciation for discussion assignments that I never thought I would have.”
“If I use valid, credible facts to back up my opinions, my peers are more likely to respond … and to take my opinions seriously.”
Lake has used the discussion board audit only at the end of the course. Although it might work to do it earlier in some courses, she is not sure it would work in her course. “I've seen so much change [in students] at the end of the course and value it so much that I'd hate to mess with it,” she says.
In addition, because students often come to this course with strong opinions and little education on the topic, it may take more time for those opinions to change and for students to acknowledge those changes, Lake says.