By: Marissa Davies
Science courses, especially at the introductory level, cover a wide variety of topics within a term and have students enrolled from different majors. To help students consolidate the information they have learned and guide their studying so they do not feel overwhelmed, classroom-based review sessions before exams are typically held. Even though it has been shown that students who attend review sessions perform better on exams than those who do not, they usually have low attendance (King, 2010). A more flexible, convenient alternative to running a face-to-face review session in a classroom could be to use online discussion boards. Although they are not typically used in science courses, discussion boards have many benefits for facilitating concept review and can be a more effective use of a teaching assistant’s (TA) time than traditional office hours or tutorial sessions (Seng and Mohamad, 2002; Markwell, 2005).
The first advantage of using an online discussion board for a review session is that it allows students to have time to think of questions that they may have and to submit thoughtful answers to any questions posted to facilitate review (Jewel, 2005). This approach is in contrast to a review session with a set time, where students may not know if they have questions on the material because their knowledge has not been tested or because they have not had time to review concepts. Also, students may be afraid to ask questions in front of their classmates in face-to-face scenarios. Online discussion boards can allow students to be more anonymous and therefore can promote more students to participate (Markwell, 2005).
Another advantage of online discussion boards is that a review session does not need to be limited to a specific time. This flexibility benefits students who may not be able to attend a scheduled review session due to time constraints. The review session also does not have to be limited to before exams but can occur any time throughout the term. Facilitating an environment in which students can continue to learn outside of class time and ask questions about the material as it is presented to them will also promote student participation and engagement in the overall course and will ultimately lead to higher levels of student success (Seng and Mohamad, 2002; Wilson, Pollock, and Hamann, 2007). Research also suggests that having students participate in discussions throughout the term will not only result in greater success for those students who are participating, but also for the students who are merely reading the posts (Wilson et al., 2007). Furthermore, it has also been shown that discussion boards improve student success in the course for non-majors in particular, who may not be motivated simply by interest (Krentler and Willis-Flurry, 2010).
By using an online discussion board, review of material can also take on many forms. Various types of activities can be used to engage students in their learning, and depending on how they are designed, such activities can enable students to sort the large amount of information they need to know and relate the concepts to the world around them. Examples include getting students to upload materials and explain why it is relevant to a class topic (Reiss, 2014) or incorporating social media such as Twitter for posting questions (Thomas and Eryilmaz, 2013). Online discussion forums also allow large classes to be split into separate groups much easier than in a classroom setting, which in turn, allows the TA to facilitate discussion in more manageable groups (Wilson et al., 2007).
Even with the benefits of creating an online discussion board for review, TAs will still have to play an active role if they want students to participate. Introducing the idea of the discussion board for questions early and promoting a positive environment are key to the success of an online discussion board (Malsac-Aleksic, Magzan, and Juric, 2009; Martyn, 2005). This can be done through careful planning of questions posted for review, making board expectations clear, and providing prompt and regular feedback to students on their posts (Kelly, 2005; Markwell, 2005). Because review sessions are typically voluntary, students often require incentives to take part other than obtaining a grade for participation (Martyn, 2005; Wilson et al., 2007). To motivate students to use the discussion board for review, TAs could post questions for students to work on that mimic the exam, since students will want to get an idea of what types of questions will be asked and want to test their knowledge of the material (Guzdial and Turns, 2000). As a TA, you will also want to make sure that you are active in helping students come to the right answers and answering any questions that are posted, as students are more likely to participate in online discussion boards when they have a positive experience the first time they use it (So, 2009). It would also help to motivate students if the groups were smaller. When the amount of posts is reduced and students have more opportunity to post answers themselves, they will take on a more active instead of a passive role (Kim, 2013).
Overall, the use of online discussion boards as a review tool has many benefits. These include creating an environment where students feel comfortable asking questions, allowing flexible review times throughout the term and/or before exams, and enabling various ways to approach topic review. Although there are challenges to creating a successful online discussion board, by planning ahead carefully, providing motivation, and taking on an active moderator role, TAs can use online discussion boards as a powerful tool for review that can enhance student learning.
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