Flawed pedagogy, lack of learner preparation, and reliance on extrinsic motivation can detract from the learning potential of discussion boards. In an interview with Online Classroom, Naomi Jeffery Petersen, associate professor of education at Central Washington University, discussed these problems and offered advice on getting students involved in meaningful ways.
A common mistake is using the discussion board as a way to monitor students' reading comprehension and to hold them accountable for what they've read rather than using it as an opportunity for conversation.
“It's a misplaced coercion. It's a matter of thinking that the professor is the only audience for what they're doing, and that's where you get into completely extrinsic motivation,” Petersen says.
To trigger intrinsic motivation, Petersen recommends developing a community-of-learners approach that expands the audience for what they know, and this knowledge is not simply comprehension but analysis and application of the content. Taking this approach gets learners interested in each other's knowledge. “When they become differentiated as individuals and know that other people realize how much they know, the motivation is not that they're being held accountable or that it counts for a grade. It's that this is part of who they are,” Petersen says.
This self-regulation consists of three components:
- Autonomy—The learner chooses how to interpret the content.
- Competence—The learner knows what he or she is talking about.
- Affiliation—The knowledge base is shared. “It's not a competition. It's joining a conversation,” Petersen says.
Petersen recommends the following techniques to encourage productive participation:
- Use open-ended discussion prompts—“ones that can be open to interpretation and that prompt students to engage their past experience and their own peculiar knowledge base, which will be overlapping with everybody else's but still slightly different,” she says. “I want to tap into that larger knowledge base.”
- View interaction as a skillset as part of the curriculum. She tells students that interactions are a means to learn but also part of the goal. “We're looking to see if they know how to interact. It's not just a race to the right answer. It's acknowledging what other people have said. It's noticing that they have something in common with other people. It's using their names when ‘talking' to them. Those aspects of civility are actually aspects of learning,” Petersen says.
- Set expectations. Students need to be prepared to interact in ways that develop the community of learners, because many will enter a course with the assumption that the discussion board will simply be used as a tool to track whether they're doing the reading. To encourage meaningful and ongoing interaction, Petersen requires each student to post responses to four others (the two preceding and the two immediately after the student's name on the roster).
“This adds some accountability because we have quite a number of hitchhikers who are quite passive … and are not in the role of contributing knowledge, only consuming it and regurgitating it,” Petersen says.
- Discourage “catastrophic” thinking. Students are often risk-averse when it comes to sharing their knowledge on discussion boards (or in any learning situation). They are reluctant to expose their lack of understanding. “We have a lot of catastrophic thinkers who think there's one right answer and if you make the smallest mistake it's a disaster that can never be fixed. That's irrational, but it's certainly how most students function,” Petersen says.
To get students away from this way of thinking, she uses a qualitative rather than quantitative approach to assessing participation in discussion boards. “[I use a] qualitative measure of whether they have interacted with other people, whether they have connected [the discussion] to their readings, and whether they mentioned a personal experience related to it,” Petersen says.
At the end of every interaction activity, each student writes a brief reflection of the experience, noting what was important to them, acknowledging people from whom they learned, and explaining what surprised them and what now makes sense.
- Link the discussion board to experiences. Being able to explain something does not necessarily mean that a student truly understands. This is why Petersen has students reflect on what they have learned and how it connects to their experiences. “We make sure that after they have the experience, we go back and say now that you've actually done this, what is it that you get out of the instructions that weren't obvious when you were actually doing it? It's respecting the fact that it becomes self-evident after they've had the experience,” Petersen says.