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Benefits of Small Group Discussions in Online Classrooms

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Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. HansenDepartment Chair, School of Arts, Humanities and Education

Teachers can vary their management of online discussions by using small group discussions. In this episode, Dr. Bethanie Hansen shares research that measured students’ and faculty engagement in both large and small group discussions in online classes and she shares ideas for consideration when varying the approach.

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Dr. Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics, and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun. Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen, and I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics, and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.

Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. Today, I want to talk to you about the discussion boards in your online class. I know there’s a lot of talk about what’s better, large group or small group discussions. You might have a learning management system that allows you to set up the smaller groups automatically, and some of you do that manually.

It’s possible to decide, for a variety of reasons, which one you prefer. Which you will use in your class, and what you expect the outcomes to be. Today, I will share with you a little bit of research that I’ve come across that talks about the online discussion forums. I want to compare the large group and the small group.

You’ll find some very interesting information there. I also want to share some interesting details from a survey in 2019 which was well before so many institutions also moved online, adding to those who already were there. Now, this study shows that the soft skills like critical thinking and problem-solving are the skills that students are learning when they are working online. But less likely are the teamwork and oral communication skills. So there’s improvement in these skills by taking classes online, but not as much in those teamwork and oral communication categories.

If you teach online asynchronously, it’s possible that oral communication may still lag behind. But teamwork can definitely be a focus in the smaller group setting, and it might be something to think about during today’s podcast. Another thing to think about is what students are getting out of that experience, if they are going to engage online. Is it so that they can be socially connected? Connect with their peers and their faculty member? Is it so they can have a sense of identity that they’re part of a group or part of a class? Is it to demonstrate their knowledge, like completing an assignment? Or, is that discussion space a place to explore the topics, try them out, and have some formative assessment?

Whatever your preference, it’s good to have intentional reasons for choosing them. The other problem about discussions online that we’re never clear about is how to measure whether they’re working.

We can grade individual students, sure. Evaluate whether they demonstrate something in the discussion. But it’s really hard to know if one approach is better than another. For example, this idea of having a large class discussion or having the smaller group discussions. I’m going to make some suggestions today based on the research. I hope you’ll try them out and then share them back with us in the request form on my website, BethanieHansen.com. You can go there and add your comment, and send it my way.

Does it Matter Whether Students Meet in Large or Small Groups Online?

The question is: Why should we care about whether a discussion is large group or small group? How’s it going to help students, either way? And what’s going to hurt us if we don’t care about this? What are we losing by not entertaining this idea, and how does it really impact our students or our faculty?

Well, the answers are not going to come from a single research study, of course. But entertaining these ideas is the game we’re playing. It’s important to be intentional, as I mentioned, and also be thinking about why you might choose one thing over another.

The research article I’m going to be sharing with you today is called, “Is the whole greater than the sum of its parts? A comparison of small group and whole class discussion board activity in online courses.” This was done by Catherine A. Bliss and Betty Lawrence at the Center for Distance Learning from Empire State College. I’d like to thank Bliss and Lawrence for their publication, here. It’s generated a lot of thought for me, and I hope it will for you as well.

Measuring Students’ Online Discussion Engagement Includes Several Metrics

The first idea is that it’s difficult to measure the types of participation students do an online discussion. We might read their post and evaluate it using some kind of rubric about whether they demonstrated certain skills or certain knowledge, but it’s really difficult to know if they are engaging in ways that do actually lead to transformative learning.

After all, when we’re online, we want to ensure that our students are getting some transformation from that learning. That their thinking is expanding. That they are grappling with the topics.

There’s an idea introduced early on in the background section of this article that I particularly liked, as the difference between cooperative learning and collaborative learning. Cooperative learning is where we’re splitting the tasks out, and different team members might be learning or doing different things, and then putting it together in a group project or some kind of group output. And collaborative learning, in contrast, is the process of mutual and shared concept building through the socially mediated processes. And basically, that means we’re going to get somewhere and think more deeply and more fully about the topic by doing this discussion together, or by having this discussion together.

This latter one, this idea of collaborative learning is what most of us are expecting to come out of an online discussion, and the question that we keep asking is: How do we know if that is happening; how do we know if a student is truly transforming through that discussion or if they’re just posting a response and leaving and never getting anything more out of it?

While there’s a lot of theory shared in this research article about what we believe to be true, there’s also a lot of down-to-earth practice. For example, the authors tell us that intuitively, it seems like the asynchronous discussion would enhance the small group interaction. And then in practice, it’s really hard to get this to happen. And one of the reasons is that we have students who may choose not to participate in the discussion.

We might have students who choose not to finish the class, or maybe their participation is minimal, and not really coming back to engage further. We might see some off-topic posts or negative attitudes towards the group discussion. It can be very difficult to get all of the students to really write educationally valuable content.

That takes some coaching, some good feedback, some guidance in your expectations up front, and even some modeling. I’ve seen some faculty praise their students who do it well and even share model posts with the rest of the group for the following week, just to help students come along and gain more skills in interacting in the discussion.

So think about what it is really going to do, to try this experiment of small group discussions versus large group discussions. You could either have a few in one class of each type, or you could teach your next class session with small groups, and then come back with the following session of a similar course and have large group discussions, and kind of look at that and see what comes out of it.

How to Gauge if a Course Format is Successful

The authors of this study created a wonderfully interesting rubric to evaluate all of this kind of participation, and I find it really thought-provoking, about how we might gauge whether a course is successful.

Define student participation

One of the things they measured is student participation, and they’re calling student participation the number of students who decide to participate in a particular discussion week compared to the number enrolled. For example, you might have 20 students in the class and 16 of them post in that discussion, so the participation would be 16 of the 20.

Notice the average quantity of students’ posts

The next area that they are evaluating is the quantity of student postings; take the total number of student responses for one particular discussion and compare that to the number of active participating students in that discussion.

If everybody’s posting twice, and you’ve got your 20 students all participating, you probably have 40 posts and that’s going to give you a quantity of about two posts per student.

Simplify your assessment of discussion quality.

The third area is the quality of student postings. Because this is so difficult to evaluate, for research purposes, [the authors] came up with a very nice two-place checkbox.

Either it’s “educationally valuable talk” or it’s “educationally less-valuable talk.” And basically, educationally valuable talk is the kind of interaction that has exchanges where they are constructing information, engaging with the ideas or key concepts of the class, and building knowledge. They’re using some reasoning skills, they’re articulating ideas, they’re showing creativity, and they’re reflecting. And, you can see this in the content.

Just reading through a post as a faculty member, you can see whether a student is doing these kinds of things. They might be mistaken, they might have incorrect information or come to a wrong conclusion where you hope they go in a different direction, but when it’s focused on the topic and those higher-thinking skills, we’re categorizing that as educationally valuable talk.

Then there’s the other side of the coin, which is educationally less-valuable talk. We find this a lot when we see students who do what I call “high-five” posts. High-five posts could be something like acknowledging what someone has written without adding anything more. High-fiving them could be saying, “Yes, I agree.” It could be saying something about what they posted and just summarizing it back. There’s nothing new added when you’re high-fiving with your educationally less-valuable talk. And in the research study I’m sharing with you today it also could be things like posts about dividing up the group work, business type tasks like getting things kicked off so that everyone’s engaging, but it’s not necessarily about the academic subjects.

Check the extent of conversational threading

There’s also another area to measure, and that is the extent of threading. You see this pattern where you or a student posts an initial post in the discussion, and no one ever responds to it. That’s just speaking out, and no one is engaging in that conversation. And then you could have two-way exchanges, like there is the initial post, and someone replies. And were going to call that acknowledged posts. Someone has responded but there’s nothing further after that.

Now, if there’s a post, a reply, and something more, this is where we get into actual discussion. And we’re going to call these third level threading, which is discussions with two or more levels of replies. Not just two or more people who responded to the initial post. So looking at the extent of threading is where we’re seeing more cognitive depth, more exploration of the topic, and this is the kind of thing we really want to see all of our discussions, whether they’re small group or large group.

Consider a strong instructor presence

The other thing noticed and measured in this discussion-oriented study is instructor presence. Instructor presence, you might think it needs to be different in small group discussions, but what they noticed was that the instructors in all the courses they observed engaged about the same in the small groups and in the large groups.

I would suggest as one who manages faculty at my university, I look for faculty to be engaged at a high level and with quality, but I too don’t think that it needs to change when they are in small groups. You don’t necessarily need to engage more or less. You just still need to engage within those groups like you would in the large group.

Thinking about this, I’m going to share some of the takeaways that I learned from this research study, and I’d like you to consider them when you’re teaching your next class and see what comes up for you if you decide to try either of these methods and really think about them.

Of course most of us are doing the large group discussion method already, so noticing some of these attributes that I mentioned here like how many students are participating compared to how many are enrolled, how many posts are the typical students putting in the discussion, and what’s the quality of their posts, and how much threading seems to be happening.

Small Group Discussions can Lead to More Engagement Overall, Including Less Relevant Content

This study produced a few significant results, and one of those was that in small groups they noticed that students participated at a higher rate. When I suggested before that maybe you have 20 students in a class and maybe you have 14 or 16 [engaging], well in small group discussions, they got a greater number of those enrolled 20 students participating in the small groups when compared to the large groups.

Think about it. If you’re in a large group, sometimes you feel like you get lost in a sea of people. And if you’re in a small group, there might be a greater sense that people will know you. That you’ll be able to connect with them, and maybe be seen and heard. That makes a lot of sense, psychologically speaking.

The second thing was the quantity of students’ posts in these small groups versus large groups. In the study, they found that students posted a lot more in the small groups than they did the large groups. Again, it makes a lot of sense, because in a small group we feel seen and heard a little bit more. There’s a chance we might even get to know those people.

The quality of student posting was also interesting. They got a lot more of those educationally valuable posts that I mentioned, which were on topic and about the content, and manipulating the subject matter, in small groups.

In the large groups, they had fewer of those overall. But an interesting byproduct of this whole process and studying this was that they also noticed there were a lot of less educationally valuable topics [in large group discussions]. So a lot more on-topic depth in small groups, but a lot more of the other kinds of posts as well. Like the figuring out how to do the group project together and the high-fiving posts, and the interchanges that are not academic in nature.

Now a lot of faculty might see posts like that and think they shouldn’t be there or that there should only be posts about the academic topics. But if you’ve seen a lot of that happening and a lot of the off-topic stuff, it’s not a bad thing. In fact, those off-topic posts just might be the thing that help your students feel like they’re really part of a group. Like they’re connecting with other humans, and they’re starting to get their identity as a learner. It’s not all bad.

Instructors can Engage about the Same in Both Large and Small Group Discussions

They also noticed in this discussion study that there wasn’t a lot of difference in the levels of threaded posts in small groups versus large groups, so if you’d like to see a lot more reply, reply, reply to the same thread, you’re not going to necessarily see that.

And another thing is that instructors don’t have to change their approach. So, they [the researchers] didn’t notice a change in instructor presence or participation in small groups compared to large groups.

How can you Explore the Small Group Discussion Strategy?

Think about all of this and your own practice. Have you been interested in trying small group discussions, and are you getting tired of that large group discussion where students post once, reply twice, and just disappear?

This is a great way to vary that or change it up completely throughout the whole class. You can divide your students into groups at the beginning of the course, say have a large group discussion in week one so people can get to know each other and get acclimated, and then you can break them into the groups for the following weeks. They’re going to have increased participation themselves, more peer interactions, and deeper socially constructed knowledge, which means they’re bouncing the ideas off of each other and learning together in a truly collaborative way. This is going to help further the course content and the focus on learning.

Interesting to notice that students were so much more vocal in the small groups. I think sometimes we resist new ideas like this one, because we’re afraid students are really just talking about the assignment, how to quickly get through it, or somehow being off-topic, which may happen. But that connection with each other and pushing through the knowledge that they’re trying to master together can be such a positive experience. This is well worth the time and worth trying, and there’s also a lot of reflection happening in these smaller groups, and potentially more analysis and argumentation as well.

I might sound like I’m trying to persuade you today to try small groups, and I’m really not. I’m just trying to shed light on the possibility that these could be very beneficial for students and yield some results that we don’t anticipate.

It could help our students by helping them to engage more deeply in the content by being in the small groups and helping them feel seen and heard. Students need that online now more than ever, so we should care about how we approach those things and those needs that our students have.

Will we suffer if we don’t try it? Probably not. If you’re using large group discussions now, you can probably continue to do that and continue in the same way you have; but you might find different results when you try small group discussions.

How does it impact our students? Students are coming away with increased connections and much more involvement in the class. That sounds like a positive impact.

Now if you decide to try it, how are you going to measure it and decide if it’s working? You can look at the student persistence and retention in your courses from course to course and throughout the weeks of the course you’re teaching.

You can also look at your end-of-course surveys when you try this method to see how they compare with those of the courses in which you use the large group discussions.

In closing, I want to share my own experience with this. I just recently tried in one week of my course, and my course is eight weeks long. I broke my classes into two groups instead of the large group discussion and there were about 25 students in the class. So there were, say 12 and 13 in each group. I broke them into these smaller groups and I didn’t tell students. I didn’t say anything. They all had the same forum prompt, they just didn’t have as many people to engage with in that discussion week.

When I look at the statistics, I did notice students engaged much more. So between week four and week six, where the large group discussions happened, and week five where we tried out the group breakup, week five was much more engaged. Many more posts by my students. And that seems to definitely support the research study that I was sharing with you today—if nothing more but to give students a chance to be seen and heard. That does benefit them, and it helps us, because we can’t possibly reach every single student all at once effectively. This could be a tool for building the rapport that we need in our classroom while also giving them the space to practice the content that we really hope they’ll be learning.

Take a look, and if you’re interested in the research study I mentioned today, I’ve got a link to it in the podcast notes, so take a look on APUEdge.com for those notes or my companion website BethanieHansen.com. In both places, you’ll be able to find the transcript and the link to the research I mentioned.

Thank you for being with me today and for entertaining these topics, like discussion forums and how we can best meet students’ needs. The more we can see our students and help them to feel like they are heard, and help them walk through the content that we’re trying to teach them and apply it, the more our students will leave truly transformed by their educational experience. That makes the whole world a better place. Best wishes to you in your online teaching this week.

This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit bethaniehansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.

 

Dr. Bethanie Hansen is the Department Chair of Religion & Philosophy, Art, and Music an ICF Professional Certified Coach (PCC) for the School of Arts, Humanities, and Education. She holds a B.M. in Music Education from Brigham Young University, a M.S. in Arts & Letters from Southern Oregon University and a DMA in Music Education from Boston University. She is a Professor, coach, and teaching excellence strategist with 25 years of experience helping others achieve their goals.

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