Enhancing Graduate Students' Performance as Threaded Discussion Leaders in a Web-Based Proposal Writing Course

Article excerpt

The study explored the effectiveness of a discussion support taxonomy used in a course in which graduate students served as online discussion leaders. The students' ability to effectively use the taxonomy as a support tool to facilitate the discussions was examined. A content analysis of the discussion transcripts was conducted, and findings indicated that students felt most successful using support strategies that were focused on telling their classmates that they were making useful posts, some strategies may be more effective during different times in the semester and, among others, that requiring a minimum number of posts for students is an effective strategy, but not effective for discussion leaders.

Online discussions create a shared space where ideas can be debated, linked to other ideas, and hypotheses can be made or refuted (Bonk & Kim, 1998). In particular, threaded discussions have been identified as one of the most popular teaching techniques, used in many different environments, including early childhood education (Bernard & Lundgen-Cayrol, 2001), a public administration program (Hutchinson, 1999), social work (Boland, Bartron, & McNutt, 2002), supply chain management (Flynn & Klein, 2001), and even for legal issues (Vodanovich & Piotrowski, 1999). In none of these environments, however, were students given the primary responsibility of leading the discussions.

Web-based instruction can be structured to support increased interaction among students with positive effects (Seton Hall TLTC Handbook, 2001). The importance of appropriate feedback in Web discussions is supported where specific strategies for instructors are suggested (Brescia, Swartz, Pearman, Balkin, & Williams, 2004). Bonk and Cunningham (1998) proposed a learner-centered model providing support for respecting diverse talents in computer-based collaborative learning tools.

A recurring concern instructors have with online discussions is how to get students to participate. Dollar (2003) and Kindred (2001) suggested that requiring posts on a weekly basis by assigning a portion of the class participation grade is useful in assuring student participation. Swann et al. (2000) suggested that giving students specific guidelines helped to build online communications and that their participation in those discussions had a direct effect on their success in the course. However, care must be taken to not take away from the learners the requirement that they continue to think, and are not told what to think by the instructor (Savery & Duffy, 1996).

Students who have participated in threaded discussion perceived that their interactions with their peers were an important element in their learning process (Archamboult, 2003). These students participated because the wanted and needed answers to specific questions (Ceccarelli, 2002) or they wanted to learn the content and communicate information they found personally interesting (DeArment, 2002). When students were required for a class project to complete a project and given the choice of several computer-mediated communication tools, they chose discussion forums and used them extensively to meet the requirements for completing those tasks (Paulus, 2003).

Bonk (1999) suggests that student participation is a direct result of leadership by the instructor in guiding the online discussion with probing questions and framing the task for the learners. Instructors can play an important role by engaging the learners in discussions and helping them learn how to use the discussion environment to improve their own problemsolving abilities. (Cook, 2002). Because they are subject matter experts, instructors may be more effective as discussion facilitators (Rourke & Anderson, 2002) particularly because students tend to give instructors' posts more importance than other posts (DeArment, 2002). Instructors who used questioning strategies effectively stimulated students to use similar strategies themselves with other students (Blanchette, 2001), and Kindred (2001) supported the idea that posting questions that probed the major issues in the subject matter. …