An Alternative Strategy for Using Online Discussions for Learning Course Content in STEM Courses

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Online discussion boards offer students an opportunity to engage with their peers and instructor in a course outside of the classroom.  The discussion boards are often used to replicate a classroom discussion and have many positive benefits.  It is relatively straightforward to setup and facilitate online discussions where students weigh in on a certain topic, debate a topic, or provide relevant information to a qualitative topic.

Using online discussion boards as a method to work on algorithmic type problem or concepts does not seem to be as popular in the scholarly literature or on educational websites. When framed properly, the discussion board can also be used to have students work on numerical problems such as converting measurements in an introductory STEM course or learn how to properly apply a concept, such as naming chemical compounds, for instance.

This strategy asks students to both answer a question as well as create a new question for the next student.  The process continues for each student.  Each student is asked to answer a question which gives them an opportunity to work on the concept.  By asking them to create a new question for the next student, the strategy requires the students to think about the type of problems or concept at little bit deeper level.  The benefits of having students create summative assessment questions has been shown previously to increase student learning (Fluckinger, 2010).  Applying this technique to an online environment should have the same benefit.

Link to example artifact(s)

The discussions start with an example from the instructor.  The first student to log in and start a new thread answers the instructors question and poses and new question for the next student. Each subsequent student then answers the previous student’s question and poses and new one until each student has answered a question and proposed a new one.  The instructor can answer the last student’s question to complete the thread.

Students are also encouraged to check each other’s work.  By assessing whether a problem is right or wrong and identifying any possible mistakes gives students another way to engage with the concept, hopefully leading to better understanding. One minor issue that could occur is that two students could start to answer the same question and propose two new questions.  To avoid this mix-up and the possibility of a bifurcating discussion thread, the instructor should watch out for this and prevent it from causing too much confusion.   The instructor can simply assess both student’s post and state which problem should be used going forward.  Students are assessed using the following criteria:

(1) solved the proposed problem correctly

(2) the correct answer was reported with the correct number of significant figures

(3) proposed a new problem that is clear and contains any additional equalities needed

(4) used proper grammar, spelling and punctuation


As an example, when students are first learning how to convert values, such as miles to kilometers, students are asked to contribute to a discussion thread with the following directions.


For this discussion, you will have to do two things:

(1) answer a problem correctly proposed by the previous comment

(2) propose a new problem for the next student to solve

The problem that you propose must need a conversion factor to solve.  If you propose a problem that requires a metric to English conversion factor please provide the equality for the conversion.

When solving the previous student’s problem include your work using an asterisk (*) for multiply and a forward slash (/) for divide.  Place conversion factors in parenthesis.

Example –

Student #1: 

Convert 2.50 in to cm.  The equality for this conversion is 2.54 in to cm.

Student #2: 

Answer to previous problem:   2.50 in * (2.54 cm / 1 in) = 6.35 cm

New problem:  How many mL are in 0.650 L?

The next student would then answer the new problem and propose another problem.  You can propose any problem that you like as long as it contains at least one conversion factor.  Make sure you are very clear about the problem you are solving and the new problem that you are proposing.  To do so, state what number problem you are solving and number the new problem you are proposing.  The first student who responds will answer problem #1 (below), and propose problem #2.  The second student to respond will solve problem #2, and propose problem #3.  That process will continue until all students have posted on the discussion board.

Conversion Thread Examples

Mole Thread Examples

Discussion Rubric

Link to scholarly reference(s)

Fluckiger, J., Tixier, Y., Pasco, R., & Danielson, K. (2010). Formative feedback: Involving students as partners in assessment to enhance learning, College Teaching, 58:4, 136-140.


Perdian, D. (2018). An alternative strategy for using online discussions for learning course content in stem courses. In B. Chen, A. deNoyelles, & A. Albrecht (Eds.), Teaching Online Pedagogical Repository. Orlando, FL: University of Central Florida Center for Distributed Learning.

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