By Danielle DeNigris
I believe that learning is a dialectical process in which both students and instructor must actively participate. However when you are staring at the faces of 100-plus students, the task of getting each to voice their opinion may seem difficult, if not impossible. There appear to be many obstacles towards student participation including fear of public speaking, fear of being criticized by peers or the instructor, and language barriers. These fears may be heightened in larger classes. Another factor that may negatively affect the quality of classroom discussions is the classroom environment itself. For instructors teaching in a large classroom or auditorium, projecting one’s voice so that all students can hear comes naturally. Students, on the other hand, typically do not have this experience and as such speak at a volume just loud enough that only the instructor can hear. This leaves many other students out of the discussion simply due to their inability to hear one another.
As today’s approach to education has shifted to a student-centered paradigm (Celik, 2013), many instructors have begun to seek out new instructional methods through the use of technology. These technological tools have been continually adapted for the classroom environment and allow for students to interact with material at a potentially more accessible and meaningful level. Among the various technological resources, online discussion board forums have seen an increase in use to supplement classroom learning. Discussion boards have become an important tool in facilitating instructors in the creation of an environment in which all students will feel more comfortable sharing questions, reactions, and theories. The following activity illustrates the way in which discussion board forums can be effectively used to encourage participation from all students in large lecture halls.
Through the use of the Blackboard I allow students access to the discussion board forum in which they must respond to various prompts. Typically, I will post an empirical article, critical question, or video that I find is relatable to students of all levels (for example, I have recently used RSA Animate videos and TED Talks). Students are then required to post a minimum of three times per forum activity. Of these three posts, at least two must be in response to another student. With so many students this allows for diversity in the topics being discussed enabling students to choose a topic of personal interest rather than being forced to respond solely to a prompt determined by the instructor. Students are then graded based on their responses in terms of quality and quantity (at least three posts have been made). I have successfully used this activity in two large (200 students) and two medium (50 students) lecture halls and have found that the students who rarely participate during class-time tend to enjoy the activity and post more than the minimum of three times.
Research has highlighted the value of discussion boards (e.g., Celik, 2013; Harman & Koohang, 2005). By allowing students to communicate with one another via an online forum, an environment is created in which students may feel more comfortable voicing their opinions with each other. Students are able to process their thoughts and edit their comments before sharing, minimizing the fear of criticism. Discussion board activities also encourage students to communicate with one another leading to student-student participation rather than the typical student-instructor paradigm characteristic of in-class discussions. Additionally, this type of activity promotes the development of critical thinking skills as students are exposed to differing perspectives and challenges to their viewpoint. Students are also able to build off of one another’s ideas leading to collaborative thinking that may not have developed in the classroom.
Celik, S. (2013). Unspoken social dynamics in an online discussion group: The disconnect between attitudes overt behavior of English language teaching graduate students. Educational Technology Research and Development, 61, 665-683.
Harman, K., & Koohang, A. (2005). Discussion board: A learning object. Interdisciplinary Journal of Knowledge and Learning Objects, 1, 67-77.