Techniques for Encouraging Peer Collaboration: Online Threaded Discussion or Fishbowl Interaction

Article excerpt

Two methods for promoting peer collaboration among students conducting research were examined. Student interaction was structured using either computer-mediated conferencing (online threaded discussion) or the fishbowl technique. Both techniques produced similar levels of student participation. Questionnaire results indicated that the fishbowl technique was perceived as providing somewhat greater benefits in solving research problems although students viewed both techniques positively. In general, students were similar in their motivation for using either of the discussion techniques, with seeking help on their research project being the highest-rated reason. An advantage to threaded discussion is that it can be implemented in large classes or on-line classes where the fishbowl technique would be impractical. Both techniques are therefore available to improve student participation in class.

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Collaborative learning has increasingly been incorporated into higher education and used to promote discussion and peer learning among students (McKeachie, 1994). Collaboration provides many benefits to the learning environment, such as increasing students' academic motivation and their overall feeling of success (Daniels, 1994). Gamson (1997) indicates that collaboration among students, when it works well, involves self-consciousness about purposes, mutual interdependence, the capacity to benefit from differences, and the ability to resolve conflicts. Peer collaboration has been shown to be an effective teaching technique for students of different levels and personalities across a wide-range of educational goals and content (Johnson & Johnson, 1975; Johnson, Maruyama, Johnson, Nelson, & Skon, 1981). However, sometimes collaboration is difficult to teach to students who have been taught that the only way to learn is through the "banking model of education," whereby they passively absorb the ideas of the instructor, make withdrawals of the information during test time, and remain disengaged from the learning process (Freire, 1970).

According to Grudin (1991), the ability to collaborate is a sign of maturation that students develop as they venture away from learning in isolation to being able to work within a larger group. Collaboration among students can be especially difficult when classes are large or there is more than one section of the same class taught by the same teacher. Although more traditional methods can promote collaboration and interaction among students, the use of computers, both in and out of the classroom, has been found to be an effective way of achieving this goal for the students (Anderson, 1996; Althaus, 1997; Collins, 1996). Computer use includes e-mail and computer-mediated conferencing, sometimes referred to as online threaded discussion, as a way to help students work together on a variety of topics (Collins, 1996; Jackson, Yorker, & Michem, 1996; Shapiro, Roskos, & Cartwright, 1995), and research results indicate that computers are most effective when instructors are trained in using the technology and when the computer is used in conjunction with classroom instruction (Althaus, 1997; Bialo & Solomon, 1997).

This article describes two methods for encouraging greater student collaborative learning in two undergraduate research methodology classes. Using an online threaded discussion group similar to that suggested by Anderson (1996) as well as a traditional "fishbowl," we compare and contrast both methods and discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each.

Method

Participants

Fifty-two students participated in this study. There were 38 students (37 women, 1 man) enrolled in an upper-division research methods course in Sociological Inquiry and 14 students (13 women, 1 man) enrolled in an upper-division Psychology laboratory course in Experimental Social Psychology at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. Participants completed the activities for this study as part of their regular course routine. …

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