Discussion forums – what we do that works

simple worksIn this post, Greg Weppner talks about the approach taken to discussion forums in the Centre for Customs and Excise Studies (CCES). While Greg is very humble about the simple strategies used by the (largely sessional) staff in the Centre, the truth is that despite being simple, they work. In a recent quality check in the Faculty of Business, Justice and Behavioural Sciences, the CCES forums showed some of the highest participation rates, as well as the highest levels of quality posts and interactivity between students from those viewed across the Faculty. 

What were you trying to achieve?

The Centre, led by Greg as Course Director, uses discussion forums as an integral part of their online pedagogy, enhancing teacher presence and exposing students to not only their teaching staff’s 360 years of customs and border management experience, but also the experiences of their peers, who are drawn from countries all over the world. It also suits their students’ contexts, coming from different timezones and often low tech environments. The Centre wanted to achieve high levels of staff-to-student and peer-to-peer interaction, and create opportunities for students to share experiences of the various customs approaches in their own countries.

What did it look like?

In the video below, Greg talks through their approach to questioning, activity design and ‘invitations’ to discussions, as well as linkages to assessments (and yes, the Centre is consistent in assessing student interaction in all subjects). He also shows their approach to marking student participation and responses.

One of the things that stands out in the CCES subjects is the skill of the teaching staff in not jumping in to answer every question, but to pause for a student response and, where appropriate, to ask further questions that require progressively deeper thinking and learning through the interaction. This is what Greg refers to as the ‘expected discussion path’, a clear approach to scaffolding student responses towards deeper learning that is particularly beneficial for a Centre that relies heavily on sessional staff.

How can I make this happen?

As Greg mentions, discussion forums are arguably the most used form of interaction in online subjects. Yet so often, they are not used to their full capability. By thinking carefully through the activity design, linking either the process or the product of the interaction to assessment if appropriate, and working on your ability to extend students’ responses through an ‘expected discussion path’ (or to be able to guide students through an unexpected path!), you just might be on track to improving the levels and quality of interaction in your discussions.

A tool that we’ve started using in FoBJBS to help academics extend student discussions is the dialogic inquiry app. Put simply, the tool offers a range of well-researched questions that academics can use to help extend different kinds of discussions, designed to meet different kinds of outcomes. We’re getting a bit of excitement about it in FoBJBS…why not give it a try?

If you’d like to talk to an Educational Designer about using some of these simple strategies, book a time through the DSL Service Request System. You might also like these posts:

This was originally presented by Greg as a Pecha Kucha presentation in the FoBJBS Learning and Teaching Symposium, 2017.

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