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@2006 Ed Gallagher, Professor of English, Lehigh Lab Fellow. Lehigh University.
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BACKGROUND: SELECTED RESPONSES AND COMMENTARY

1)  Have you used a discussion board (conference board) in college-level classes?

75% yes
25% no
This caught me a bit by surprise.  I wasn't expecting that 3/4's of the class would have had some discussion board experience.  That gives me reason to believe that this project will find a significant audience, although -- see question 2 -- the main users are in English.
 

2)  In what course(s) did you use it?  If you used discussion boards in more than one course, you can pick one on which to focus in the following questions or compare courses in your answer.

10 -- English
  3 -- Sociology
  1 -- History
  1 -- Art History
  1 -- International Relations
  1 -- Biology

There was only one English major in the class, so the high English number here relates to use by teachers in the first-year writing program, mostly graduate students.

3)  How was it used?  How did the teacher articulate the goal, purpose, or function of the discussion board?  Why were you using the boards?

I was interested in seeing if students had a sense of why they were engaged in discussion board activity, if teachers were making the reasons clear.

Why were you using the discussion boards?

  • 5 -- to facilitate interaction leading to better understanding:
    • "The discussion board was used to facilitate meaningful interaction among students in the class.  The professor and students in the class posted discussion topics, and the class was expected to develop the topics into conversations."
    • "we posted out thoughts on a subject and classmates were expected to reflect on those thought and post replies.  In other words, the boards were mainly used to provoke subtantive consideration of the material."
  • 3 -- to respond to a teacher question:
    • "For each movie, I was required to respond to a question put forth by the teacher."
  • 3 -- for peer evaluation:
    • "it helped us to critique one another's writing in a less confrontational setting."
    • "Our teacher would have one student write an essay on a novel or topic.  The student would post his/her essay, and everyone else in the class would have a certain amount of time to read it and post a thorough response stating their own opinions on both the students essay and the piece. "
  • 2 -- to extend class discussion (post-class):
    • "The discussion board served as a means of extending conversation or comments that were brought up in class, whether by students or the teacher. . . . hopeing that discussion could be broadened beyond what was discussed in class."
  • 2 -- to prepare for class discussion (pre-class):
    • "It was used as a tool to get us thinking about the movie or text before we addressed it it in class so that we would all be better prepared to contribute during class discussions."
    • "The discussion board was used as a means of identifying topics worthy of in-depth class discussion."
  • 2 -- as the online course "classroom":
    • "It was used daily as the main source of communication because it was a purely online class."
  • 1 -- because I had to:
    • "It was seen as more of a threat and requirement for a grade rather than anything that would be beneficial to the class."
Two interesting discussion board exercises worthy of note:
 
  • "The discussion board was used as a means of identifying topics worthy of in-depth class discussion.  For example, we would receive a reading assignment and be required to post on a related topic (as dictated by Prof. _____).  Each class a different student would be responsible for reading all of the posts, identifying different ideas and presenting them to the class for further discussion."
  • "The professor had subjects for us to read about and then post on.  We worked in assigned groups and which groups posted would rotate, and the other groups would have to post a response by the following class.  We would then discuss the posts in class."

Student responses seem to indicate good awareness of the pedagogical goals of discussion board activity and a variety of uses by faculty.  However, subsequent conversations with students confirmed for me that most discussion board activity is of the one solitary post or, much less frequently,  the one post/one response variety, and I wonder if that is enough to be called "discussion" --  although, of course, it is true that in many instances that one post is tied in to discussion in class.  But I am interested in sustaining longer interchanges on the discussion board itself.

4)  How often was it used?

1 -- voluntarily (whenever "intrigued" enough to post)
1 -- once every 5-7 weeks
1 -- once every 2 weeks
6 -- once a week
4 -- twice a week
2 -- three times a week
1 -- four times a week
1 -- five times a week
The number of discussion board posts, of course, relates to the place of discussion within course goals, the amount of practice students get, and faculty workload (since managing a discussion board and reading and commenting on posts takes substantial time.)  In this class students posted three times a week -- much more than most in the survey -- and my own instinct is that students won't improve in discussion unless they are aware of clear pedagogical goals, practice it at least twice a week, and see that a substantial part of the grade is attached to it.
 

5)  Did the teacher give examples of appropriate posts or in some other way model the kind of responses he or she sought?  Explain.

I was quite anxious to see what information I would get here.  My intuition was that though a significant number of people were using discussion boards, there was little in the way of teaching how to use them and perhaps little articulation of their specific value beyond the generally accepted idea that discussion is good and the more the better.  But if people were teaching the discussion board, I wanted to see how they were doing it.

Were there examples or models of what makes good discussion?

  • 9 -- No, not much, or "yes, but":
  • "The teacher made the first posting which served as a starting point for others to respond.  However, there was no specific format.  Students were free to post however they wanted."
  • "It was pretty self explanatory.  The teacher did not give an example of what she wanted, but it was pretty straight forward."
  • "She told us to just write a few questions or comments we had about the movies we wathched."
  • "Not really it was really open so we could post as little or as much as we wanted. They were really just our opinions on the film."
  • "My teacher did not really explain what was or wasnt an appropriate post.  We, as a class, were just told to answer thoroughly and appropiately to the essays content."
  • "No, unfortunately not."
  • "Not really."
  • "there were specific themes that led the class to post in a specific fashion.  The boards were pretty open ended though, encouraging the students to be creative with their responses."
  • "The teacher explained what was expected of students.  I don't remember receiving much feedback regarding the quality of the posts throughout the semester, though.  He didn't let us know if we were meeting his expectations along the way."
  • 3 -- Yes, given before posting:
    • "Yes. At the beginning of the semester, Prof. _____ distributed copies of good posts and discussed why they were outstanding with the class."
    • "Yes- he usually posted exactly what the assignment was then elaborated on his own thoughts and reations--and responded to others."
    • "In Bacteriology, the prof. had an example of his ideal post on the website. It was a student written post from a previous year."
  • 4 -- Yes, given after posting:
    • "yes, his responses to posts were enough to guide you in the right direction if posts were not appropriate."
    • "The first couple of weeks, our professor would take responses that we had posted and read them to the class to demonstrate what he was looking for."
    • "he would post first (not a post, just the assignment- which would always be very specific)... BUT, he would reward what he considered to be the 'best post' the next time the class met and then you could go back and read that post to see what it was he was looking for."
    • "The teacher printed out posts that were interesting responses."

Thirteen of the sixteen students here either had no instruction, not much instruction, inadequate instruction, or instruction after the fact (though I can see that as a legitimate strategy in some cases).  I am more interested in getting "out front" and making students very conscious of their discussion board work at all times.

6)  How much grade or value was put on discussion board work?

 0%:   3
 5%:   1
10%:  1
15%:  3
20%:  2
25%:  1
30%:  1
major/substantial:  4 (3 were online classes)
not sure:  1
I wish I knew more about what criteria others use for grading.  My sense is that many teachers use a quantitative measure (for instance, 90% of the required number of posts = A) and/or an unarticulated subjective response for quality.  I am trying to work toward articulated qualitative criteria.  And my instinct is that students will not improve their discussion board work unless a substantial part of the grade is attached to it and there are clear qualitative criteria.  I am experimenting with valuing discussion equally with formal essays and even with "decapitating" the usual sequence and doing away with essays, the usual end-product of discussion, making discussion work 100% of the final grade.

7)  How would you describe your work on the discussion boards, both in terms of quantity and quality?

I was after some kind of subjective response about workload and "worthwhileness."  Was this too much work, busy work, fun?  Were they engaged?  That kind of thing.   Here is a sample of the responses:

"I find it hard to post online because when I sit in front of a computer I lose all of my creative talents and feel like I have to perform. I would usually come up short on the boards and get in troble for it :-("
"I posted often(several times a week) and sometimes it was of high quality and other times it was just if i felt i wanted to reply briefly to something that was said."

"It depends on what I was writing about. The peer reviews were a good idea. Some of the literature we responded to was interesting. However, sometimes the questions our professor would raise were boring and I would label them as 'busy work.'"

"My work on the discussion boards was satisfactory. I met the guidelines set forth by the instructor. I felt as though some of the conversation on the board was forced, however. It seemed as though some people were bringing up topics simply to gain credit for the assignment. Sometimes I had difficulty finding things to respond to. I also think I could have done more to spur conversations myself."

"I thought my work was adequate, and I posted as often as I could and checked the boards frequently.  However, there's always much room for improvement. I found sometimes I just wasn't in a deep enough mood to write something effective and when put on the spot to do so, ,y post wasn't as good as I would have wanted it to be; but that's not necessarily a bad thing because the provocation lessened those occurances."

"Using a well-structured paragraph, I took a structured stance on the question posed. Persuading my reader using the AIE writing method (Assertion, Illustration, Elaboration), I advanced on into the heart of the paragraph by utilizing evidence from the movie to strengthen my point."

"lI feel i tried to use the discussion board to my advantage. I was able to express certain feelings i had about the works and see how other people viewed the material. Though i admit at times it was extremely rushed and not stated clearly."

"I don't think I could actually call what we did on black board work; we just wrote short commentaries."

"i think my work on the boards was pretty good. I kept up with the work, except for an assingment or two and i think that the content of my posts was pretty solid. A lot of time was put into each post."

There is not much rapture expressed here, but -- ha! -- maybe that is too much to expect.  I am especially interested in the negative comments here, in turning them into prompts for my use of the discussion board.  For instance, I am prompted by some comments here to try to make sure that discussion board work is organic to the course, is initiated by students as much as possible, and that ample time is provided for it.

8)  Do you feel reading the posts of others was a benefit?  Explain.

I wish I had also asked if they felt writing their own posts was beneficial!

  • 5 -- Yes, to jumpstart own work:
    • "I kind of used other posts as a guideline for how mine should be structured."
    • "I feel reading the posts of others was a benefit because it helped me find a starting point for my own posts."
    • "It's good to see how others are responding before I formulate my response."
    • "The extreme opposite opinions gave me a different angles from which i could establish my own take on the material."
    • "absolutely. sometimes i couldn't thnk of anything to write about and by reading a few other posts i got more ideas, whether it be disagreeing with someone else, or spinning off on a similar theme that i may not have otherwise thought of."
    •  
  • 9 -- Yes, for different perspectives:
    • "I thought reading the posts of others was the greatest benefit of the discussion board. It was very interesting to have an opportunity to understand so many points of view to the same situation."
    • "Definitely. I usually only get one perspective from a professor. I get 20 from reading the posts of my classmates."
    • "the posts of others let me see the topics covered from different angles than my own, which was pretty cool to see."
    • "sometimes I read posts that were great in that I thought to myself- I didn't thin of it that way!"
    •  
  • 5 -- Yes, but:
    • 2 -- time problems:
      • "Reading the posts of others is beneficial, but it's also time consuming."
    • 2 -- repetition:
      • "They all tend to sound the same."
      • "Yes-- however many post become redundant."
    • 1 -- needless arguing:
      • "I thought so, except when people would argue simply for the sake of arguing, which is usually quite obvious in some posts. I thought the were a waste of time."
      •  
  • 1 -- No:
    • "Not really, it was kind of hard to sit down and read through them. Maybe if there was one or two insightful people in the class I would take the time and read theirs, but I did not read everyone's religiously."

The strong response here is positive, and I must admit that my instinct was that there would be more "no's" and more problems cited.  Only 1 unmitigated "no" and only a few qualifications -- that's heartening.

9)  Do you think the discussion board added value to the learning in the course?  Explain.

Looking now, I wonder if there's a meaningful difference between this question and the previous one, but the range of answers is different.

  • 8 -- Yes:
    • "Yes, I think the discussion board added value. I don't think the same type of interaction among students is easily replicated in a traditional classroom."
    • "Yes. As I said, I found it helpful to discover other points of view and to share my own. It forced me to think more deeply on certain subjects."
    • "Yes, because of those times, as I said in the previous question, when the fellow students would point out things you never considered. It makes the material all the more intriguing."
    • "yes. when you have to think (read/watch, comprehend/process, write) you are learning. period."
    • "Yes- you can express yourself more freely rather than saying it to someones face where they might defend their own point of view and make you feel uncomfortable."
    • "I personally tend to be quiet, so it's easier for me to express an opinion on the discussion board. It also gives students more time to think about a topic before responding."
    •  
  • 4 -- So-so:
    • "I suppose, but it was more or less just posting and reading questions."
    • "Sometimes. It depends how it is used.  If it is used as the primary discussion tool it can be less valuable because it enables people to hide behind screens.  And the true reactions are not visible."
    • "Somewhat. I didn't particularly like my first English class so the whole course's value was less than spectacular."
    • "I think the discussion board added a little value to the course."
    •  
  • 5 -- No:
    • "TO be honest, not really. It was more about just getting the posts up and out of the way. I realize I probably sound ignorant by saying that, but truthfully, the posts didnt do much for me. I'm a huge fan of reading selected course documents, or even straight from any text."
    • "Not really. Usually, the discussion board was somewhat off-topic from the disscusions in class. So the discussion board served more as a means of expressing ideas that were similiar to topics touched on in class, however, not important for the class material."
    • "It would have been more beneficial if the posts were out of interest and not out of fear of a bad mark."
    • "I think that the teacher was struggling to keep the discussion board apart of the class, and the students were rebelling against it."
    •  
An interesting set of responses.  Quantitatively, more negative than the previous responses.  Qualitatively, familiar sets of positives and negatives.

Among the positives were different interactions and perspectives, ability to think more deeply, ability to freely express without face-to-face discomfort, an outlet for the quiet student, and time to think.

Among the negatives were mechanical posts, students hiding their true selves, going off-topic, and uncooperative groups.

10)  Is there anything else you would like to say about discussion boards?  For instance, was there an important question or area not touched on above?

  • "I think the discussion boards can be a very valuable learning tool.  However, I think in order for their full potential to be realized, the topics on the discussion board need to be integrated into the traditional classroom discussions.  If the topics discussed on the boards are the same topics discussed in class, I think both the boards and the class will thrive.  If the topics on the boards aren't integrated into the classroom, then I think the boards will not be as useful."
  • "it is better if the posts don't have to be too long. early in the semester if i remember correctly, ________  was going for like 4-5 screen fulls but he wasn't getting the quality b/c people (including myself) were running out of things to say.  so then he dropped it to a 2-3 screen minimum and the writing was much more concise and focused."
  • "I hate to be brutally honest like this, but as of right now, in my young academic career, I'm not convinced discussion boards are the best way.  I believe the best route to expressing your thoughts is to speak them in class.  I realize at times students are tentative to voice their opinions, but I also believe the teacher's job is to engage the student and to help bring the students thoughts to the surface of in-class discussion.  We meet three times a week for 50 minutes a day. That is plenty of time to discuss the weeks readings."
  • "I hope we don't have to write too formally on Blackboard. I'll throw out my best ideas in class discussions but I don't want to fret over structural details."

That first comment is interesting.  Must remember always to integrate the discussion boards and not make them seem extraneous busy work.  And the third comment is quite thought-provoking.  I myself have wondered if face-to-face discussion experience is really quite more important.  But it is so hard to get that in any depth given the class sizes we have.  And I guess my response would be that I hope I am teaching the general principles of and giving general experience in discussion that applies to either written or face-to-face modes.  I hope so.

11)  Think of the best college course you've had.  What made it so?

The purpose of this question was to see if discussion and interaction had a role in what students thought of as their best education experiences.

  • 10 -- The teacher:
    • "the professer caring about the student as an individual rather than a number."
    • "My first semester English professor was the best teacher I've had so far.  It was her that made the course."
    • "So far, the best college course I've had was an organic chemistry class I took over the summer.  The Professor was very friendly, a little off the wall and he structured the course such that most of the time in class was spent working problems which, in my opinion, was essential to understanding the material.  Mostly, I liked the fact that the class was small, and the professor encouraged group work.  I got to know a bunch of people, which meant I had a large group to offer help If I ever needed it.  The class was actually one to look forward to, and I learned a great deal from it."
    • "THE PROFESSOR LOVED WHAT HE DID, AND CARED ABOUT WHAT HE WAS TEACHING.  you can take a course being taught by a genius, and you can have a terrible time. The professor may be talented, but if he doesn't care about making sure to make his students loves the subject being taught as much as he does, he/she will never be a successful teacher. all students can learn (and work their butts off), if they are made to care about what the professor is teaching, and caring and seriously learning for self betterment, not just grades, like i was able to do with the help of my prof in one of my classes last semester, it what makes a college course someone's favorite."
    • "What made it the best was that I really liked the professor.  I thought he explained the material well, and was really interested in the subject he was teaching."
    • "The teacher was extremley down to earth and it was a relaxed and trusting classroom environment.  Even though many people did not like the topics discussed in the class it was not hard to make the best out of the comfortable learning atmosphere."
    • "The course that I learned the most from was ENGL 2.  My professor was very knowledgeable. I fell I learned more from that class than from any other."
    • "the professor was engaging and challenging without overwhelming the class."
    • "Prof. _____ engaged his class in an energetic discussion on every Tuesday and Thursday from 930 to 1050. Utilizing humor, overhead picutures, the blackboard, and a few movies, he engaged all of his students and created a great atmosphere for learning."
    • "My professor was brilliant and picked a very interesting and fun topic for us to study over the course of the semester."
  • 3 -- Interaction  specifically:
    • "The professor, the material, the cute girl in the next row, my grade, and ESPECIALLY class discussion."
    • "The discussions and the group dynamic."
    • "Prof. _____ engaged his class in an energetic discussion on every Tuesday and Thursday from 930 to 1050. . . . and created a great atmosphere for learning."
  • 5 -- The content:
    • "The best college course I've had I think was the best because it made the topic relevant to current issues.  It discussed a lot of current research and how the subject can be applied to a future job or today's society."
    • "The independent study on entrepreneurship I completed last semester was the best course I've had.  I felt like I was able to soak up as much knowledge as my brain could handle at once. I was able to pick most of the material I studied during the semester, and the material I wasn't able to pick was still excellent.  I was constantly challenged by the things I was reading."
    • "The best college course I have had is Sociology.  I found this social science to be rather compelling as it opened the mind to how society affects people.  It was definitely a thinking course that allowed me to expand my mind to become more free and view people in different ways than I had previous to becoming exposed to the course."
    • "I took intro to cell and molecular biology last semester and feel that it is by far the best class I have had thus far in my college career. This class posed a daunting challenge as it is known throughout the land of biology majors as a bear of a course. This class brought out the best in me, pushing me to work harder than I ever have before."
    • "i have really enjoyed my creative writing classes probably because it's such a personal thing. if your story or poem is no good, it's nobody's fault but your own."

Wow!  The teacher over the content by a striking margin, and the teacher as creator of the classroom atmosphere in which interaction takes place seems more significant that the teacher-as-oracle.  Bodes well for this project and the use of discussion boards in general.

12)  In general, what role, if any, do you think other students have in your own learning process?

Naturally, the responses here are directly related to my project.

  • 11 -- Widening horizons:
    • "I think that other students affect the way I learn and thus perform because their feedback, opinions, outlook, and statements cause me to interpret and register newfound information- hence altering my own viewpoints."
    • "other students can help to push you do more by what they do and they can also help you to see things from a totally different perspective, which i know is a good thing for me."
    • "they contribute ideas and opinions about things that broaden my thought processes--and help get me out of a rut if im stuck and don't seem to be able to move on."
    • "like the other question (about reading other student's posts) they have a role because they raise topics and ideas that i may not have thought of on my own."
    • "I have found that studying in groups of my peers leads to the most successful performance in a class.  The interaction between eager students can both liven and clarify even the most dry and convoluted material.  It is also my observation that an active classroom discussion brings the class to a new level of learning and discovery.  Discussion can add provocative twists to the already established ideas of a class."
    • "I think other students have a valuable role in encouraging my learning because often others' opinions have an influence on the way I analyze topics of discussion or may spark my creativity in some way."
    • "I feel, especially in classes where the professor carries on discussions, other students are key to our learning process.  Students pick up on things that I do not, and sometimes, the professor does not.  Students also tend to ask questions that I may also need answered or may find helpful."
    • "Other students can provide different ideas or opposing opinions or perspectives to a topic. They can make a person think more about a topic."
    • "Other students help keep me from being narrow-minded.  Often times, I formulate an opinion and stick to it.  Through class discussion, I am able to understand concepts for thoroughly through others' thought processes."
    • "I believe that other students have a lot to do with the way a single person learns.  Going to a teacher for advice only gives a person one point of view. By asking classmates, people who are on the same level with many different ideas and thoughts, a person can get a wider variety of answers."
    • "Just getting me to interpret things differently."
  • 4 -- As teacher:
    • "I think other students play a very big role in my own learning process.  I would say i learn as much or almost as much from other students as i do from the professors and textbooks."
    • "I think my classmates are responsible for a significant portion of my learning.  Some of the most intriguing things I've heard in classrooms have come from students.  They are able to offer vastly different points of view than the professors.  Many times, their comments are the ones that make me think the most."
    • "Othere students are also helpful if a student is having difficulty understanding a subject since they can provide an alnernative presentation of the material than what the professor did."
    • "when a prof makes something hard to learn with his words or teaching style, or if the student is just trying to learn something quite esoteric, his/her peers can impart knowledge in a way that's more understandable often times."
  • 4 -- Little or none:
    • "Hmmmm.... I like to keep my learning experience to myself for the most part, so I would say almost none."
    • "Other students play a small role in my learning process."
    • "I think it is the effort put forth by each individual student that determines what he or she takes away from the course."
    • "I think students have the responsibilty of not being a negative distraction- like posting nonsense such as a contrarian style post, or talking during class outside of the discussion."

An interestingly overwhelming positive response here!

13)  To conclude, please specify and elaborate on an analogy or metaphor for college that is especially meaningful to you. In class today, I indicated that for me college should be a "learning community." What would you say? How would you fill in this blank. College is a __________. Be as descriptive as you can: college is a prison, college is a picnic, etc. To help, if, for instance, I asked you this past weekend to fill in the blank in this sentence, what would you say: "Returning to college is like going to ____________." Be sure to elaborate on the reason for your choice.

This question was added at the last minute.  Since I was introducing the notion of "community" as a metaphor for the class, I was interested in knowing what metaphor they were bringing to class and how it might relate.  I have listed only the topic sentences below, you can click here for all  responses or click on the sentences for the full specific response.

I'm certainly not a psychologist and don't pretend to talk knowledgeably about what these responses tell us about these students or about my project, but I can just talk impressionistically about some of what jumps out at me.

First, these students see little joy in college, and what there is is severely qualified.  The buffet bar is a scene of tough choices.  The "amazing view" from the mountain happens "sometimes" during the "uphill battle."  The limitless fountain contains useful and pointless knowledge.  The box of chocolates is a guessing game.

Second, college is clearly an in-between space: purgatory, a bubble, a rollercoaster, a snooze button, a safe haven, a workout in the gym, a training facility, a laboratory.

When pictured as a place of individual action, college is a battle, a struggle, a challenge: like climbing a mountain, like juggling in a circus, like cresting ocean waves, like working out.

But the students often see themselves as passive, as inert: college is like an artist reshaping people's minds, like purgatory where we wait for decisions to be made about our fate, like going along for the ride on a rollercoaster.

Finally, perhaps most relevant to my project, there is very little here in any forceful way about the place or value of others, of community: it's a mini-model of ethnic diversity to experience, and "a few climbing partners" are helpful on mountains, but that's about it.  Hmm, is the difference with the responses to question 12 meaningful?

Convincing this group to work together for each other seems a tough sell!