Connecting with Students: Improving discussion and communication with first year students

B.P Wilson

Co-operative Research Centre for Soil and Land Management

University of Adelaide

Glen Osmond, South Australia, 5064


Student evaluations of a first year subject at the University of Adelaide in 1995 indicated a major problem was the inability to communicate with the teacher across two remote campuses. In addition, there was a total lack of discussion in tutorial sessions. In 1996 an attempt was made to improve communication and discussion using computers. Initially this took the form of email, and then the students were introduced to the Windows based discussion forum software called the Knowledge Tree which combines aspects of a bulletin board with a database functionality to facilitate personal communication over networks. Email created more opportunity for student/teacher interaction and thus a better relationship developed between the teacher and most students. The computer discussion forum produced a greater diversity of discussion compared to the traditional face to face method used in 1995. Overall, these methods greatly enhanced the learning process for both student and teacher.

1. Introduction

Making connections with students is difficult at the best of times and when teacher and student are separated by distance the process of getting to know your students is almost impossible. This process is often most difficult when dealing with first year students, and it is compounded when it is also the teacher's first year of academic life. This is the scenario which confronted the author in 1995 and which produced a somewhat disappointing result at the end of that year. In an effort to improve the situation for 1996, an integrated use of technology was implemented to improve student/teacher communication and also increase student/student and student/teacher discussion.

1.1 Computer Mediated Communication

Computer mediated communication has been used widely in the context of distance learning and to foster discussion amongst groups of like minded people for many years. Its use has recently expanded with the advent of Newsgroups and Bulletin Boards on the internet with graphically based infrastructure utilising the World Wide Web. While email is the most widely used form of computer communication, and in fact forms the basis of Newsgroups and Bulletin Boards, its use as a means of fostering discussion and interaction within a group is often limited.

Limitations in interactions with email occur because it is often necessary for participants to identify the position of a message in the ongoing structure of a discussion which will consist of many messages posted from the group [1]. As such, participants may post messages which are asynchronous with the rest of the group and result in a breakdown in the normative constraints of social interaction [1]. In addition, personal experience has shown that within many email discussion groups, topics are often discussed in a flurry of postings and then generally discarded once the discussion has run its course. However, certain academic discussion forums that use email as the primary medium of communication have been reported to work well and have been compared to the type of discussion that may develop within a conference situation [2] [3].

Within a class of first year students it can be assumed that they will not have the skills to conduct diverse discussion through email alone and the graphical user interface has been shown to improve interactions among some groups [4]. However, email can be seen as a way to overcome initial resistance to participating in discussions by providing a less confronting form of communication, particularly between teacher and student. If email communication can be started early in a term, communication can develop over time starting with general class administration and then moving onto more academically oriented communication between teacher and student. This is particularly important when face to face teaching is limited or non-existent. While there may be initial hesitancy with such a new form of communication, students tend to overcome this, the technology becomes invisible and the student is able to use email creatively with comfortable confidence [5].

While there is no doubt traditional face to face small group discussion sessions create the best learning environment when they work, computer mediated discussion forums have several advantages in certain circumstances. From experience, discussion in disciplines that do not lend themselves well to a natural exchange of views can cause small group sessions to become mini lectures with the teacher doing most of the talking. This is compounded when the class is at first year level and there has been no opportunity for teacher/student or even student/student relationships to develop to a point where all participants feel comfortable exchanging ideas in a public face to face forum. In addition, the constricted time frame of tutorial sessions inevitably results in a lack of time for students to consider and formulate their ideas before making comment to the group. As is often the case, many face to face discussions are often hijacked by the more extroverted and confident students while the introverted and shy remain quiet at the back of the class desperately trying to avoid eye contact with the teacher. Computer discussions held over a time span of weeks or months offer an opportunity for students to develop and even research their ideas, and can offer some anonymity when posting. In addition, computer discussion reduces the necessity to interrupt or wait your turn to speak thus creating a potentially highly participatory and democratic medium [6].

Some of the reported problems with computer mediated discussion include computer illiteracy [7], decreased social interaction [8] [7], gender inequalities [6] and the tendency for a group to focus on only a portion of the available data [9]

With this background, an attempt was made to improve and facilitate discussion and communication within a first year group at the Roseworthy Campus of the University of Adelaide. General electronic communication was initiated by the use of email which then led to a computer mediated discussion forum later in the term.

2. The Student Group

The class which took part in this project consisted of 21 first year Associate Diploma students at the Roseworthy Campus of the University of Adelaide, in the Division of Agricultural and Natural Resource Science. The course was Agricultural Production and as such most students came from rural backgrounds. The subject itself was an introductory course in Soil Science, first taught by the author in 1995. The Roseworthy Campus is located 60 km to the north of Adelaide while the teacher was located at the Waite Campus to the south of the city. Face to face teaching time was limited to one day per week and consisted of a one hour lecture and a three our laboratory session. Because of the distance and lack of interaction, there was very little time to develop any sort of relationship with the students. In addition, tutorial sessions which were attempted in 1995 were singularly disappointing in that very little discussion took place and almost no learning was evident. The causes of this included the teacher's lack of experience, poor topic choice and the fact that there had been very little personal interaction between teacher and student. Moust and Schmidt [10] found that teachers who have a greater knowledge of students' daily lives, study experiences and personalities perform better in small group discussions with students.

2.1 1995 Student Teacher Evaluations

Student evaluations of the subject in 1995 showed that the inability of students to contact the teacher was of great concern. Most students could not travel the great distance between the Roseworthy and Waite campuses and did not feel as though telephoning would have been appropriate. Other criticisms included lack of relevancy in the lecture topics and a lack of feedback throughout the subject. Because of these evaluations, it was decided to implement a system of computer mediated communications.

3 The Method

In an attempt to address these problems in 1996, two innovative approaches were examined in an effort to break down the barriers of distance as well as to improve the process of "getting to know" the students. The two approaches were designed to lead from one to the other to slowly create an environment where students felt comfortable using the new technology.

3.1 Email

The first approach was to introduce the class to email. This was achieved by creating a simple web based mailto form for students to enter details of themselves during the first lab contact period. The execution of the mailto form was by no means seamless and students had to configure their Internet browser with their own network and email details before the form could be emailed. This had the unexpected benefit of introducing the network to the students right from the beginning. In addition, most students had not ever used the World Wide Web, and were among the first at Roseworthy to do so within a structured class. The students were allowed freely to browse the web once they had filled in the web form which seemed to be the first step in developing a trust and a more personal communication between teacher and student. The data obtained from the web form exercise formed the basis of the direct, introductory email communication between student and teacher. On the basis of the form contents, each student's first assignment was customised to their background. The first assignment was sent to them by email and the answers were required to be submitted by email also. Class administration, general notices and assignment feedback by email continued until the second, and more comprehensive, initiative was introduced.

3.2 Forum

The second initiative involved a Windows® based computer mediated discussion group known as the Knowledge Tree which was introduced using the University's internal computer network. The Knowledge Tree software combines aspects of a bulletin board with database functionality to facilitate personal communication over networks.

Students were presented with a controversial lecture and then asked to discuss the lecture on the Knowledge Tree software. Students were allowed to access the computers at any time they wished and were encouraged to ask questions, make points and comment on their fellow classmates postings. In this way, students were allowed time to develop their own ideas and post them in a non-confronting atmosphere. The teacher was also able to answer questions and comment on student postings from his remote office location. This computer discussion continued for seven weeks until the end of semester.

4 Outcomes

Despite the rural background of most students, almost all had some form of computer experience although none had ever accessed the internet. The use of the mailto web form introduced the students to many aspects of computer operation from simple windows based commands through to email and Internet browser configuration. The unstructured format of the initial lab period allowed students the time to learn about the computers at their own pace, with timely "walk through" demonstrations from the teacher.

The process of reading and answering the data obtained from the students' initial email assignment was involved and time consuming. Each message had to be carefully considered and an individual response given for each student. Despite the small number in the class, this process took considerable time and effort. However, once this process was completed, it allowed for continued personal contact utilising the somewhat impersonal medium of email. The initial email and some subsequent messages also allowed the teacher to change some of the original course subject matter to make it more relevant for the students where possible.

Reading and responding to postings in the discussion group was also time consuming but important because students tended to lose interest if feedback was not forthcoming. This process was assisted by defining a particular time of the week by which time all new messages were to have been read and responded to if necessary by the teacher. Despite the potential for improper use of the Knowledge Tree discussion group, all students took part and made intelligent and considered postings. Marks were awarded for the number and quality of postings and whether they were able to support their ideas with referenced information. All accesses to the discussion group were logged which allowed analysis of the frequency and time of postings for each student. This was particularly useful as it allowed each student to be graded for their contributions, whereas in a traditional tutorial period individual grading of a new group is often difficult.

When the log was analysed to determine at what time during the day students were posting to the Knowledge Tree (Fig 1), a wide range of posting times was found. Most students tended to post in the mid morning although some postings were outside of normal university working hours which showed that students were taking advantage of the fact that they were not restricted to specific tutorial session times.

Figure 1 Hourly Frequency of Postings

Analysis of the data to determine when students posted messages throughout the seven week period produced some interesting but not unexpected results (Fig 2).

Figure 2 Daily Frequency of Postings

While postings were spread out over the whole period, concentrations of postings occurred after the students were reminded that this formed a part of their assessment. This may show that students were not considering or researching their postings which was one of the main aims of this computer discussion. However, throughout the year, it was evident that even in the classroom conversation the students often discussed the topic amongst themselves and with the teacher.

The Knowledge Tree allows for threaded topics to develop and over 20 different discussions did take place. The number of postings to each topic ranged from 4 to 18 which shows that students were reading their classmates postings and commenting on them as well as posting their own thoughts. In total, 150 messages were posted to the forum.

Overall the quality and quantity of student ideas and comments were greatly increased compared with face to face tutorial sessions in the past. When grades for the Knowledge Tree sessions and final grades were compared there was a general positive correlation although the sample size is far to small to draw any significant conclusions.

Student Evaluation of Teaching in 1996 did not mention any lack of communication between teacher and student, nor were there any complaints about lack of relevancy. While no formal evaluation of the initiatives was undertaken in 1996 the quality and enthusiasm for the subject by the students certainly improved. While it is hoped that the Knowledge Tree had some affect on student learning, it is more likely that the overall attempt by the teacher to involve the students in the new technology and develop more communication options created better student teacher interaction which in turn improved the learning environment for all involved.

5 Conclusion

This approach greatly improved the academic, administrative and general communication between teacher and students, and improved the discussion between students in the computer mediated forum. The high quality of the postings to the forum showed that student interaction had been increased compared to previous tutorial sessions. This type of forum could be used to improve discussion on many topics in a lecture series and need not be confined to distance education scenarios. While this project formed part of the student's assessment, this need not be the case and could be especially useful for upper level undergraduates for which the "stick" of marks may not be necessary for themselves to obtain the "carrot" of improved discussion amongst their group.

6 Acknowledgements

I am very grateful to the 1996 class of Soils D at the Roseworthy Campus of the University of Adelaide who showed great patience and enthusiasm in the initiatives undertaken in this paper and for taking the whole process seriously.

7 References

1. Ahern,T.C. (1994). The effect of interface on the structure of interaction in computer mediated small group discussion. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 11:235-250.

2. Burton, P.F. (1994). Electronic mail as an academic discussion forum. Journal of Documentation, 50:99-110.

3. Burge, Z.L. and Collins, M. (1995). Computer mediated scholarly discussion groups. Computers and education, 24: 183-189.

4. Ahern, T.C. (1993). The effect of a graphic interface on participation, interaction and student achievement in a computer mediated small group discussion. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 9:535-548.

5. Russell A.L (1995). Stages in learning new technology - naive adult email users. Computers and Education. 25(4):173-178.

6. Hardy, V., Hodgson, V. and McConnell, D. (1994). Computer conferencing- a new medium for investigating issues in gender and learning. Higher Education, 28:403-418.

7. Gregor S.D. and Cuskelly E.F. (1994). Computer mediated communication in distance education. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning. 10:168-181.

8. Taha L.H. and Caldwell B.S. (1993). Social isolation and integration in electronic environments. Behaviour & Information Technology. 12:276-283.

9. Hightower R. and Sayeed L. (1995). The impact of computer-mediated communication systems on biased group discussion. Computers in Human Behaviour. 11:33-44.

10. Moust J.H.C. and Schmidt H.G. (1994). Facilitating small-group learning - a comparison of student and staff tutors behaviour. Instructional Science. 22(4):287-301.


B.P. Wilson (c) 1996. The author assigns to ASCILITE and educational and non-profit institutions a non-exclusive licence to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The author also grants a non-exclusive licence to ASCILITE to publish this document in full on the World Wide Web and on CD-ROM and in printed form with the ASCILITE 96 conference papers, and for the documents to be published on mirrors on the World Wide Web. Any other usage is prohibited without the express permission of the author.