Critical thinking in online discussions

I always struggle with online discussions in my classes.  I try to foster active learning by constructing good questions that promote engaged discussions with my students.  My hope is that students interact with the content, with their classmates and with me in such a way that I can encourage critical thinking and thoughtful examination and reflection of the course concepts.  In reality, however, I work a lot to make sure that my students aren’t posting comments like “I agree!” or “I really enjoyed this article.” in my online discussions.  I show the examples of good posts and have even taken to assessing their posts to encourage more thoughtful dialogue.  Despite my efforts, some students still struggle with interacting with course content in some meaningful, higher order manner.

In reviewing proposals for the The Teaching Professor Technology Conference, I came across an article from the Journal of Online Learning and Teaching that might help.  The article outlined research conducted with students in an online Educational Psychology course and discussed the use of a four-question strategy for discussion forums. The four-question strategy was originally developed by Dietz-Uhler and Lanter (2009) for use in a face-to-face psychology course but the JOLT study translated the questions to online discussions.  In the strategy, students are asked to answer four questions when they post to online discussions.  These questions include:

1.  Identify one important concept, research finding, theory, or idea they learned while completing this activity.

2. Why is this concept, research finding, theory, or idea important?

3.  How does this concept, research finding, theory, or idea apply to some aspect of your life?

4. What question(s) has the activity raised for you? What are you still wondering about?
The overall strategy may seem simple but it is quite elegantly constructed.  The strategy scaffolds students through different cognitive activities to help them interact with the content more effectively.  The students first analyze what they’ve learned and then reflect on why it is important.  Next, the students apply what they’ve learned by relating it to their everyday lives.  Finally, students question what they still want to learn about the topic.  This final stage helps students attend to their learning in a metacognitive fashion and to self-assess what they would still like to learn.
In the JOLT study, the researchers measured evidence of critical thinking by rating students’ comments in the online discussions with The Washington State University Critical and Integrative Thinking Scale (WSUCITS).  After incorporating the four-question strategy in the online forums, the researchers found that students’ critical thinking was significantly enhanced.  The researchers also found that the strategy was equally effective with students who were new to online courses and with students across a spectrum of ages.  While I worry that the strategy has the potential to be overused in online discussions, I also see the instructional benefit that it can give to those students who struggle with crafting good posts in forums.

One thought on “Critical thinking in online discussions

  1. Pingback: Ten ways for online students to engage with content |

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