At the Master’s level, students are looking to engage with lecturers and course content, as well as learn from each other. Often students’ extensive experiences and backgrounds provide an additional and valuable way for them to engage with, and learn from, each other as peers.
This desire to learn from fellow students was captured in course feedback for JST450 Introduction to Intelligence and JST452 Intelligence Management. The challenge was, how to make this happen?
What did it look like?
The use of questions as a means of engaging students is fundamental to learning at every level of study (primary, high school and university). The benefits of addressing deep questions (i.e. why, how, what if type questions) has been well-documented . These types of questions require a deeper level of thinking, moving beyond simple answers and encouraging explanations and justifications.
In meeting students’ desire to learn from their peers, deep questions were seen as a useful (and proven) approach. Consequently, a series of Why and How questions as well as Yes/No questions that also require justification were developed that consolidated course content and enabled students to draw on their own experiences and insights.
Falling forward – right approach, wrong medium
Any effort at developing something new requires a certain degree of falling forward – learning and adapting initial efforts before arriving at a strong solution. These deeper questions were originally added to the online Discussion Forums as a way for students to answer and respond to each other. However, the Discussion Forum proved to be the wrong medium for the approach. Few students took the opportunity to answer the questions and respond to peers’ answers (11% of JST450 students and 18% of JST452 students). The problem appeared to be one of motivation. Despite a stated desire to learn and engage with peers, to encourage the broader student body involved required a more tangible motivation.
Providing the motivation and the medium
How to encourage students who might otherwise not engage to provide their insights and thoughts both for their own benefit and as an opportunity for other students to learn from? The unsurprising answer was to make student engagement assessable.
Students were required to provide answers to five deep questions as well as provide a considered response to a fellow student’s answer via an online blog. The i2 blog tool was chosen as the best approach for hosting the questions – and my thanks to Karissa Taylor from the Division of Learning and Teaching who helped to get the i2 blog up and running.
The total grade for the blog questions is just 10% of the final grade, with each of the five questions worth 2 marks – 1 mark for a student’s answer to the question and 1 mark for a response to a fellow student’s answer.
The results were immediate in terms of achieving a strong student participation rate. Overall, 96% (JST450) and 95% (JST452) of students engaged with the blogs throughout the course (that is, answered at least one question). Completion rates were also positive. In the most recent semester, 73% (JST450) and 84% (JST452) of students provided answers and responses to fellow students for at least 4 out of 5 questions, with 50% (JST450) and 68% (JST452) of students answering all 5 questions and responding to fellow students’ answers. Again, given the blogs make up just 10% of the course grade, and the initial participation rates in the Discussion Forum format, these participation levels have been encouraging. However, the point was not simply about developing an assessment but enhancing peer learning, which is where other data provides a valuable picture.
What stands out is not simply the levels of participation, but the amount of information generated from this approach. Guidance for 250-word answers and 100-word responses are regularly exceeded (a positive), with students using the blog questions to reflect deeply on the topic, course content and their own experience. The blogs for last semester generated 102,027 words (JST450) and 39,545 words (JST452) of considered student-developed content. The often insightful, researched and thoughtful answers enhance learning and engagement by getting students to articulate their own thinking (in the form of written answers) as well as allowing students to reflect on (and respond to) their peers’ insights. Student feedback has indicated that this has provided a useful tool for student-to-student engagement as well as a genuine opportunity for peer learning.
How can I make this happen?
At the post-graduate level, when students often come with a level of experience and practical knowledge, there is an opportunity to learn from each other, both to enhance the learning value of the course as well as encourage a more interactive online environment. This has been one approach that has been successful in meeting students’ desire to learn from their peers and providing them with a medium and the motivation to do so.
I’m also interested in other approaches that have worked in this area of peer-learning – so if you have successes in this area, I’d really like to hear about them.
 For example, see Pashler, H., Bain, P. M., Bottge, B. A., Graesser, A., Koedinger, K., McDaniel, M., & Metcalfe, J. (2007). Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve Student Learning. IES Practice Guide. NCER 2007-2004. National Center for Education Research. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED498555.pdf