Short Case Study: Discussion and Debate to encourage critical evaluation


A debate or discussion that takes place online can leave a transcript which can easily be revisited, unlike the spoken word. It also allows for the explicit structuring of discursive themes or ‘threads’, and for comments by tutors and peers. This level of organisation can be difficult to manage in spoken discussion. Critical evaluation can be hard to get going face-to-face and class-based discussions can be very rapid. Using the VLE can slow down the pace, facilitating a more insightful discussion where others’ contributions are fully considered by students before they respond. This can encourage those who may not normally take part in classroom activities to participate, including those whose first language is not be English. If students are off campus (perhaps studying a distance-learning programme), online asynchronous tools allow discussion to take place regardless of time zone or geographical location.

Discussion can take place between the whole cohort, or via groups of students that are separated for study and then brought back into the main topic group. Etiquette for ‘free-form’ discussion needs to be addressed, and students can be involved in developing their own rules and codes of practice.

A structured debate can make use of defined group roles and ‘rules of engagement’. For example, a ‘position statement’ can be posited, a proposer and opposer identified, supporting team roles established and time deadlines given. Resources to support the debate can also be indicated.

Case Study Overviews

Biomolecular Archaeology (Biology and Archaeology)

Biomolecular Archaeology is a third year undergraduate module for archaeology and biology students, which introduces the roles of biological and biochemical science in archaeology.

Prior to the introduction of the VLE, student feedback highlighted the “disorganised” nature of the course’s online resources, as well as the view that the course was aimed at archaeologists, with little account taken of the biologists. The course instructor also observed that there had been limited interaction between the two groups of students. These shortcomings prompted a redesign of the course, with the VLE included in a revised blended delivery approach. The two groups of students enrolled on the module had very different backgrounds in terms of knowledge and experience and the course environment aimed to serve as an interface between the two. The tutor found he could direct the student learning experience in different ways, which was not possible in standard web-based courses.

To promote interaction, ideas sharing and support between the two disciplinary groups, a shared discussion forum was implemented. Other discussion forums were used to support student learning outside class sessions. A ‘Help’ forum was set up as a location for archaeologists to question biologists and help them access the lecture notes, providing guidance on test questions and vice versa. An additional discussion forum was also set up for archaeology students to pool their resources together for the seminars.

On the whole, the use of the VLE and discussion forums was successful, with students reporting that they felt that the VLE had potential to allow a greater degree of interaction between pupils and between pupils and lecturers.

Coronary Heart Disease Online (Health Sciences)

This module required students to discuss the implications of risk assessment for patient care with each other and the course tutor. The learning approach involved three key stages:

  • Mastery of theory
  • Application of theory to practice
  • A wider critique of practice.

The VLE helped to structure the course materials and case studies around these stages, with discussion and reflective tools to help students share their experiences and engage in the critical evaluation of practice. Course participants were divided up into three tutorial groups and each group was assigned a discussion forum to reflect on the issues arising from specific patient histories. A general discussion area for all students to exchange ideas on the key themes of the course was also set up. This was used at the beginning of the course to cover induction information and throughout the course to share ideas across tutorial groups. A further discussion forum was set up during the consolidation week to reflect on the outcomes from the course.

In this course, the tutor’s role in reviewing discussion activities in the online tutorial groups was crucial. Discussion forums which are not moderated often become places for ‘one-shot’ comments, rather than locations where students construct understanding by critiquing the contributions of their peers and relating their thoughts to previous posts. The use of summary posts by the tutor, which highlight the contributions of group participants, was helpful in reinforcing contributions and encouraging wider participation. By posing questions and drawing out themes from previous posts for group discussion, the tutor helped students to think more deeply about their comments, and to work in a collaborative way.

Next Steps

Case study last updated: September 2012

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