Discussion—sharing and articulating ideas—is an important part of the learning process, especially in tertiary education. Through discussion, learners can discover their misconceptions which they may not realise otherwise and thus enhance their understanding of the subject. Discussion in class also helps the teacher understand problems students face in their learning. Since it is common for students have a different perspective from the teacher, students can learn better if they have to explain or clarify certain concepts to one another. Thus, discussion facilitates peer learning.
Unfortunately, in Singapore, math classes at the tertiary level are usually very quiet. Though this is understandable in a big-class math lecture, students do not speak up even in small tutorial or discussion sessions. At best, students only come up to the whiteboard to reproduce the solutions they have prepared in advance.
Why are math classes so quiet?
The main reason students feel uncomfortable about discussing during math classes is because they find it intimidating to speak up in front of a group of people, especially when they have not known one another well. The weaker students in particular, have little confidence to speak up in front of the better ones because they are not sure whether they are asking ‘stupid questions’. The better students also tend not to speak up as they do not want to be ‘showing off’ or arrogant. Another reason local students do not discuss in math classes is because they have been accustomed to just copying solutions during math classes in their earlier education. When the students come to university, they expect that math classes would be conducted in same way and some have found it hard to adjust. Thus, teachers need to create an environment conducive for students to discuss math in class. However, it would not be easy to students overcome their psychological barrier.
Online discussion forum
I have discovered that one way to ‘break the ice’ among students is to use the online discussion forum on the Integrated Virtual Learning Environment (IVLE). This mode of discussion allows even the shy students, who are fearful of face-to–face discussion to discuss math with their classmates. The IVLE discussion forum allows students to:
- Use plain text, hyperlinks, tables, graphics and math symbols in their postings,
- Attach a files of up to 15MB in each posting,
- Be notified when there is a response to his or her posting, and
- Be anonymous by displaying only students’ nicknames.
There are (at least) four ways to write mathematics on the IVLE discussion forum:
- Use simple symbols or notation and type them ‘linearly’ as plain text. If all the students in the class know some common math software (e.g. Maple), they can input math in the discussion forum the same way they will input math in Maple,
- Input standard symbols and notation using the equation editor which can be accessed via the toolbar located on top of the message window,
- Typeset more complicated equations or less common notation using some convenient software (e.g. LaTeX) and then convert them into graphic files and insert them in the desired position of the posting, and
- Prepare the whole posting in PDF (or other) format and include it as an attached file.
Advantages of online discussion forum
Initially there may not be many people posting on the forum, but if the discussion can be sustained, subsequently more and more students will join in the discussion. Generally, students find ‘speaking up’ on the online discussion forum less intimidating than face-to-face discussion. Another advantage that online discussion forum has over face-to-face discussion is that it does not limit the number of participants. Every student, no matter how big the class, can be involved in discussing a topic by viewing one another’s postings and posting their own views.
Unlike face-to-face discussion, online discussion can be carried out anywhere anytime. Since face-to-face discussion usually requires real-time response, students who are weaker in math may not find this format beneficial to them. With online discussion forum, students can have more time to think through the argument and compose their responses. As hyperlinks of Web pages can be inserted into the posting, the discussion forum can also integrate Internet resources into the discussion content.
The IVLE discussion forum also allows the lecturer who creates the forum to get statistics on student participation. Table 1 shows the statistics of student participation in two of my modules, MA2101 “Linear Algebra II” and MA1506 “Mathematics II”. Though less than half of the class for each module posted on the forum, such participation rates for a near-zero discussion math class do indicate that the forum does indeed have some positive effect in getting students to discuss math.
Table 1: Student participation in the online discussion forum for MA2101 “Linear Algebra II” and MA1506 “Mathematics II”
||% visited forum
structured format, assessed
Limitations of online discussion forum
Ironically, one of the main criticisms of online discussion forums is the lack of face-to-face interaction. This highlights the fact that virtual discussion cannot totally replace face-to-face discussion; there are certain advantages of direct interaction. Thus, I would like to suggest teachers use the two formats of discussion at different stages. For example, teachers may start off a new math class using online discussion to engage students in discussing math. Once students know one another better and become more comfortable with discussing math with their classmates, teachers may switch to real-time discussion instead.
Since the majority of students will visit the forum only to view the posts, the discussion forum for small classes with less than 100 students may die off after a while if there are not enough active participants. The discussion cannot be sustained if there are fewer and fewer students posting or even visiting. Large classes, however, have the advantage of a critical mass of active participants who will keep the discussion going. Large number of postings can elicit responses even from silent participants. However, one of the limitations of online discussion forums for large classes is that teachers may find it hard to use the forum as an assessment component.
Format of discussion forum
The following are some suggested ways of running an online discussion forum:
- Free format—Teachers may open up a forum and let students post whatever they want. For big classes, such a forum can get very disorganised if the teacher does not maintain it regularly,
- Structured format—Teachers may open topic-based forums (e.g. one discussion forum for each chapter or for each tutorial),
- Teacher-initiated format—Teachers may also initiate a discussion forum by posting some open-ended problems (related to what they are learning) to students,
- Group discussion format—Teachers may also use the forum for small group discussion (i.e. one forum for each group). If there are many groups, teachers may need to get additional facilitators to help monitor the discussion for each group, and
- Lecture feedback format—Most lecture theatres at NUS are equipped with wireless Internet connection and students carry laptops to class. Teachers can make use of the online discussion forum to collect instant feedback from students during lectures. This serves as a channel for discussion even in large classes.
Discussion as assessment
If the class size is small, teachers can include online discussion as part of the assessment by making it compulsory. The assessment criteria can be based on either the quantity of postings (e.g. every student must post at least three postings throughout the semester), or on the quality of the postings. But the latter criterion will be harder for the teacher to keep track if the class size is large. If the discussion forum is part of assessment, I suggest that its weightage should not be too high and the forum should be more structured and focused. I usually give students options to either participate in class or in the forum.
When a teacher creates a discussion forum, s/he should monitor the forum closely. In my opinion, it is more beneficial for the teacher to participate in the discussion. However, some may argue that once the teacher gets involved, the discussion forum becomes a ‘one way traffic’ (i.e. students ask and teacher replies). This scenario can be avoided if the teacher acquires some techniques to facilitate the discussion. For example, when a student makes a wrong claim, the teacher should not jump in and correct him straight away. Wait and see whether the other students are able to point out the mistake. If not, then the teacher will chip in. But instead of simply telling the student the correct answer, the teacher may prompt the student to reconsider his claim or drop some hints to guide the student. Another reason that teachers should keep track of the forum is to identify some of the students’ common misconceptions and clarify them in class. Last but not least, dropping a line to encourage students may just motivate more students to participate in the discussion.