Vicki Suter

Discovering the power of good questions

What effect do discussion forums have on learning (the dark side)?

Oddly enough, the source of this post is . . . a discussion forum. It is clear evidence that I was able to use a discussion forum to dive down deeply into a topic. The citations are here because they are a requirement of the course.

My difficulty with the discussion form as implemented is that I’ve not often seen a pattern of sustained, thematic development of ideas, what Scardamalia and Bereiter (2006) called “iterative idea development” (p. 7) and what Thayer called “cumulative build-up of knowledge or consensus” (2012b).

One of the root causes is the technology. Scadamalia and Bereiter (2006) argue that “threaded discussion militates against deepening inquiry; instead, it is much more suited to rapid question-answer and assertion-response exchanges” (p. 20). The other is that “the structure of the assignments seems to increase the fracturing of the discussions, since we are all asked to post an original response to the same questions” (Thayer, 2012b).

The other issue is . . . where do the questions come from? If from the instructor, then the teacher is doing a piece of work that would be much more beneficial to the learner if they were to do the work themselves. In other words, the most meaningful questions (and the ones that are engaging) come from the learner.

A possible new approach is starting to emerge for me, based on: a) Scardamalia and Bereiter’s (2006) idea of collaborative knowledge-building discourse; b) the learning theory concept of “scaffolding”; and c) on Thayer’s (2012b) notion of a “managed multi-thread format.” Here’s  how it might work:

  • Each discussion question is framed as a problem we are to solve collaboratively (rather than engage with individually) – and the question comes from the learners, maybe through a process we might call “the free market of questions.”  Each student lobbies for their question, the group choose the most important to explore.
  • Each initial response to the discussion question is structured in terms of a proposal, the rationale and supporting data for the proposal, any additional information that might be necessary to modify the proposal (providing this structure would be the “scaffolding” that might help reduce the “I agree” and off topic posts that can add the volume of posts that represent a barrier to learning..
  • Implementing Thayer’s “managed multi-thread format,” to start a new sub-thread the poster would have to read all of the initial posts, and then advance the discussion to a new level, “justifying why his/her idea is new and different from the ideas submitted above” (2012b), and then other participants would pick the line of discussion they wish to follow (or make their own claim to a new approach).
  • The instructor’s role would be to challenge whether these posts represent a new idea, or should be absorbed into another sub-thread.
  • The participants in each sub-thread would be required to bring their discussion to a summary/synthesis conclusion which is then posted in the week’s summary of the discussion.
What do folks think?
Bender, T.(2003). Discussion-based online teaching to enhance student learning: Theory, practice and assessment. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing LLC.
Scardamalia, M., & Bereiter, C. (2006). Knowledge building: Theory, pedagogy, and technology. In K. Sawyer (Ed.), Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences (pp. 97-118). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Thayer, J. (2012a, August 21). Is writing writing? Retrieved from Moodle discussion forum.
Thayer, J. (2012b, August 20). Yikes! How to absorb more than 375 unmoderated comments. Retrieved from Moodle discussion forum.

One comment on “What effect do discussion forums have on learning (the dark side)?

  1. dcmplotkin
    August 30, 2012

    This is a real problem. There are instructor-based solutions — the instructor can begin in the middle of the discussion to reflect back themes that are emerging or summarize themes. This is a technique I’ve used in the past, but it does not place responsibility with the learner. I’ve also required citation of peers’ comments in a formal essay assignment. I like some of the solutions you suggest, which place responsibility for synthesis on the learner. However, I think this activity would need to be modeled by the facilitator or instructor.

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This entry was posted on August 30, 2012 by in Discussion forums, Learning, Technology and tagged , , .
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