February 26th, 2010

Three Ways to Increase the Quality of Students’ Discussion Board Comments


As more and more courses go online, interaction and knowledge building among students rely primarily on asynchronous threaded discussions. For something that is so central to online learning, current research and literature have provided instructors with little support as to how they can facilitate and maintain high-quality conversations among students in these learning environments. This article responds to this need by offering three strategies instructors can use to ensure educationally valuable talk in their online classes.

What is educationally valuable talk?
With its emphasis on high-level negotiation of meaning, educationally valuable talk (EVT) is a form of representation in text-based communication whereby students “collaboratively display constructive, and at times, critical engagement with the ideas or key concepts that make up the topic of an online discussion, and build knowledge through reasoning, articulation, creativity, and reflection” (Uzuner, 2007, p. 402).

Discourse that is representative of EVT is the hallmark of successful online classrooms as it facilitates higher-order learning. However, in online classes where there are minimum posting requirements, students’ tendency to meet the required amount in an obligatory fashion usually leads to interactions that do not have potential educational value as they do not contribute to the learning community’s pool of knowledge. Uzuner (2007) characterizes such conversations as educationally less valuable talk (ELVT)—talk that “lacks substance in regards to critical and meaningful engagement with the formal content or ideas that are discussed in the posts of others in an online discussion” (p. 404).

There can be little doubt that ELVT does occur to at least some degree in almost all online classes. The prevalence of this type of talk becomes the most troubling issue, in fact a nightmare, to the online instructors. The question then arises: How can instructors ensure educationally valuable talk in their online classes?

Suggestions for instructors
Based on the findings of a study that investigated the factors that had value in increasing the quality of student interactions in an online graduate education course, Uzuner and Mehta (2007) propose the following strategies for instructors to help them achieve educationally valuable talk (EVT) in their online classes:

  1. Generation of class norms by the students: One of the factors that may facilitate the production of EVT in online discussions is having students co-construct a set of guidelines/norms for online discussions which will then be presented to them in all modules as a reminder of class expectations. Having ownership of the norms that govern the course discussions will certainly affect the climate of collaborative learning in an online class by providing an impetus for students to post more constructive and meaningful messages.
  2. The employment of Grice’s maxims for self-evaluation: In addition to the student-generated class norms, another factor that may positively affect the nature and characteristics of students’ online posts is the employment of Grice’s maxims by the students to self-evaluate their own posts. Although not specifically referring to online conversations, Grice’s maxims for effective and collaborative conversations include:
    • Quantity: make your contribution as informative as is required, but not more, or less, than is required.
    • Quality: do not say that which you believe to be false or for which you lack evidence.
    • Relation: be relevant.
    • Manner: avoid ambiguity and obscurity; be clear, brief, and orderly.
  3. Retrospective analysis of posted responses: Asking students to engage in a retrospective analysis a few times during the semester whereby they self-critique and reflect on their performance and comment on their perceptions concerning the quality of their responses may make them revisit their learning and, more important, initiate them into rethinking about their postings to improve their talk quality. In these retrospective analyses, students can be asked to talk about the ways online discussions mediated their learning and reflect upon the quality of their postings, usefulness of their contribution to the overall discussion, and their experience as a collaborator in making meaning of the content.

Uzuner, S. (2007). Educationally valuable talk: A new concept for determining the quality of online conversations. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 3(4), 400–410.

Uzuner, S. & Mehta, R. (2007, August). Aiming for educationally valuable talk in online discussions. Paper presented at the Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching—MERLOT Seventh International Conference, Sheraton New Orleans Hotel, New Orleans, Louisiana.

Excerpted from Suggestions for Instructors: 3 Ways to Ensure Educationally Valuable Talk in Online Discussions, Online Classroom, July 2008.

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