Society for the Teaching of Psychology

Division 2 of the American Psychological Association

A Tool for Understanding Students: the Discussion Forum

11 Mar 2014 7:55 AM | Philip Kreniske

By Anna Schwartz

One of the oldest tools on the Internet, (besides of course, the blog) is the forum.  Encouraging students to use the forum can be difficult, as mentioned by Danielle DeNigris two weeks ago, but it is also crucial, and not just as a way to get inter-student participation up in a large lecture class.  The “Discussion Forum” can be a powerful tool for monitoring student progress, and for reflecting on your own successes and weaknesses as a teacher.  I used a mandatory forum, as part of a hybrid online-traditional classroom, to ask my students about their study habits.

There were several aims. The first aim was simply to see how they were studying and if I could correlate good strategies with good grades to advise them for later exams and also to advise future semesters of students.  The second aim was to get them to meta-cognitively assess themselves – to realize whether what they were doing sounded “right” or whether it had been getting them the outcomes they desired.  The third aim was to assess what concepts they were struggling with – what topics could I have explained better?  Do I need to replace or bolster a bit of lecture with an activity or a demonstration?  What was hardest for them?  The fourth aim was to get them to learn from each other – some had excellent study habits and strategies, others seemed lost but in search of a good technique.  Instead of posing a suggestion to them based on research, let them find it through the recommendation of a peer, an infinitely more trustworthy source!  Lastly, and this is a major goal for me, across multiple aspects of the course, I wanted to foster a sense of citizenship within the class, which I hoped they would take with them into all the communities of their futures.  They need to learn to take on responsibility to do well not just for themselves, but because they are responsible to each other – by doing well, they can facilitate others’ success as well as their own if they share resources.  When they find a strategy that earns them success, I want them to connect that mentally with an obligation to give back to their community, and also to empower themselves to feel worthy of contributing to a community.  By being responsible to each other, my hope was that they would raise the level of work across the class.

As a teacher, a quick read through the forum can give you a sense of where to concentrate your resources. I wanted to explore the forum in more depth, and so I began analyzing it for content and also for phrasal structure to see what I could learn about my students as individuals and as a group developing ideas together over the course of the semester, around the focal stressor of exams (I even asked them to share with their classmates their strategies for coping with exam stress). One post exemplified a sentiment shared by a number of students:

I cope with exam stress by trying my hardest to study and by taking short breaks to breathe and play my piano which relaxes my mind. I think they are effective in the sense of calming me down rather then a sense of learning. I would definitely try flash cards because they seem very effective. Participant 55

The student used this post to convey a degree of stress and to share one of the coping mechanisms they used to deal with this stress. In addition, I learned something about this student – he or she is a musician.  Now I have two new pieces of information that I can leverage to improve my teaching. I have a sense of how distressed the students are overall (useful in deciding whether to push or to ease up on them) and also a relevant topic that I can draw into examples to reach that student.

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