Use a Reflective Online Discussion Activity to Help Students Solidify Learning

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In order to build the scaffolding for learning, students need to acquire knowledge to build from. Lectures and chapter reading assignments can make current Instructional Designers cringe, but often times it is a time-efficient strategy to deliver content. What the authors of Make it Stick illustrate so well is that often when learners listen or read material, even repeatedly, they build confidence that they understand it. This passive exercise builds their confidence of knowledge, but when asked to apply or demonstrate their knowledge, learners are often surprised they perform poorly on assessments. Learners who put effort into their learning have a better chance of solidifying learning and will have a better chance of applying that knowledge to future problems or situations.

We often expect that students know how to process content in a way that will help their understanding and retain knowledge. Often though, students will just read or listen to the material and not voluntarily partake in any note-taking, questioning or reflecting of the content. Many students that can memorize easily come to college with the realization that just reading the book and attending lectures does not always equate to good test scores. Faculty can help students develop processing skills by requiring them to partake in an activity that will encourage them to apply some skills to deepen their understanding and make learning more active.

After presenting content, have students:
1. List 2-3 things/concepts that they didn’t know before
2. List 2-3 questions that they still have (students in the class will answer these questions, with the faculty member chiming in if needed)
3. Provide an essential question addressed in the content (ie – if they were teaching the material, what is an essential question answered by the material)
4. Describe a connection to the content either to themselves personally or professionally

Link to example artifact(s)

Jane Sutterlin used this technique in an online graduate level pathophysiology course that was extremely content heavy. Assessments were in the form of timed quizzes and exams that modeled what they would see on their certification exam. Students were asked to read chapters in a textbook and watch video lectures that supplemented the text. To help students develop effective study skills and engage with the content,  Sutterlin asked the students to post to a discussion forum (using Piazza):

1. List 2-3 things/concepts that they didn’t know before
2. List 2-3 questions that they still have about the content
3. Provide an essential question answered in the content
4. Describe a connection to the content either to themselves personally or professionally.

Sutterlin stretched this activity over two weeks, where students would post one week and answer or respond the next. Piazza allowed answers to be collaboratively edited by all the students into one answer, but any discussion forum would work for this activity. Students could also submit these statements/questions to an assignment that could be shared out as well.

Participation in this activity was engaging for the students and they felt the activity aided in helping them study and perform better on exams. The faculty also felt they needed to answer less questions regarding the content because the students were answering each other’s questions. Occasionally, the faculty would add clarification or supplement materials to any misconceptions.

Grading can be a concern for this project if a faculty feels they need to provide feedback on everything the student submits. However, faculty often see this activity as part of a participation grade and engage with the students to provide feedback to clear up misconceptions or highlight excellent responses. This activity can be used as formative assessment to gain insight into where students might be missing key concepts, having trouble pulling out main topics or misunderstanding the content.

Link to scholarly reference(s)

Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make It stick : The science of successful learning. Cambridge, MA, USA: Harvard University Press. Retrieved from

Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.). (2000).  How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school.  Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Perkins, D., & Unger, C. (1999). Teaching and learning for understanding.  In C. Reigeluth (Ed.), Instructional-design theories and models: A new paradigm of instructional theory (Edition III) (p. 91-114). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.


Sutterlin, J. (2017). Use a reflective online discussion activity to help students solidify learning. 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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