Saturday, March 19, 2011

Online discussion experience improves critical thinking

    Recently I compared student discussions from a year ago – when I had just started using Moodle discussions with my students – and from today.  The prompt is identical (pictured here), but the results are astonishingly different. 

    Last year, my 8th grade students weren’t quite sure what to do yet.  They gave their opinions, but their entries were short.  Nobody was taking any risks.

    This year, after having most of the school year to work with the Moodle, the students provided lengthy entries, included evidence to back up their opinions, and fearlessly challenged the teacher’s assertion.

    Last year, with about the same number of students, 2,530 words were written in this discussion.  This year, it was 4,044. 

    We have been studying Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Having the discussions online leaves us time for students to act out the play F2F in class.

     I used the same prompt both years, though this year's included a picture of the four lovers arguing. Last year most of the posts were short, like SH’s: I think it is because he thinks that people who have a lot in common will fall in love.

    This year, most of posts were long.  And the very first post, from CW, immediately challenged my analysis:
Well, I actually don't really thing Demetrius and Lysander are very similar. Demetrius is very "well, your father said you and I are getting married and I like you so we're getting married, end of subject."
Lysander is very different in that way. He loves Hermia and is willing to break the law and run away to be with her.

Hermia is very detirmined to be with Lysander, even if it means having to leave her home and knowing that if she comes back, Thesus will make her be a nun.
And no one likes Helena. Until they are charmed. So no one REALLY likes Helena.

    After routinely using Moodle discussions for all kinds of work, the students are comfortable with online discussion, and are thinking critically.  Woot!!  Even students who struggle with Language Arts didn’t hesitate to set me straight: I don't think the lovers are similar begins another post. And everybody was part of the discussion. 

     Better still, the discussions are homework, done outside of school during student’s personal time.  And I can see that students go back to read what others wrote, even if they don’t post again.  Talk about extending meaningful grappling with the content beyond class time.


  1. Thanks for this great post. Just a thought, maybe we should spend more time teaching commenting skills.

  2. Great post Fran! I am just starting ti teach an Online course (VCE Environmental Science) and wonder if you know of any tools for evaluating online courses. I am hoping to get some qualitative data from my students in addition to their assessment scores.

  3. @penbentley There is always a need to spend time on teaching commenting skills. Rubrics, examples help.

    @Mrs Gow Here are some ideas for evaluating online courses:

    Quality Matters has rubrics for both K12 and higher ed. Your institution must be a subscriber to get all the details, though.

    Checklist for online classes, higher ed (but useful for K12 also).