Friday, April 12, 2013

SMUMN - The Impact of Online Discussion in a Middle School Social Studies Classroom

Cross-Post for St. Mary's University Master's Program:

Implementation Plan

Classroom discussion is often important in most classrooms. However, it is one of the key components of any good social studies classroom setting. My students and I spend a lot of time having classroom discussions on a variety of topics. These discussions can be incredibly engaging and fruitful, and they are vital to the class. However, as often pointed out in the research, classroom discussions are often moderated question and answer sessions facilitated by the teacher. As much as I like to think that we have vibrant discussions, I know that I am guilty of leading a “moderated Q&A” more often than I’d care to admit. Most teachers will tell you that they would like their classrooms and instruction to be more student-centered, and I would include myself in that group. When it comes to discussions I would absolutely like to move away from a moderated Q&A toward a much more student-centered discussion. Beyond that, I’d also like to ensure that all of my students are participating in the discussion. Though many students very well might be engaged and listening to the discussion, it is nearly impossible to have all students fully participate in a full-class discussion. With that in mind, I hope to use online asynchronous discussion with my students to not only increase student participation, but to move away from a moderated Q&A discussion to a true discussion.

For this action research my students and I will engage in online discussion using Schoology ( We have dabbled in using Schoology throughout the year, so my students are already familiar with the platform and how it works. We have also had a couple of online discussions this year, so again students are familiar with what they need to do on Schoology. We will be studying the Reconstruction Era of the United States, which is the time period immediately following the Civil War. Throughout the chapter the essential question we will be exploring is “To what extent did Reconstruction bring African Americans closer to full citizenship?” 

In years past after we have studied each major period of Reconstruction students have plotted on a spectrum (Limited Citizenship to Full Citizenship) where African Americans were, and then wrote a short justification for their assessment. Students then stood on a spectrum in the classroom to reflect their opinions, and we concluded each section with discussion of why students stood where they did. I’ve wanted more out of these particular discussions in a few areas. One, I wanted more original thought and less of students ‘parroting’ their peers, and two I wanted deeper and more advanced explanations. Additionally, these discussions never include everyone.

This year the process will be modified slightly. Students will still plot their feelings on the spectrum in their binders and write a short defense and explanation. However, we will not stand on the physical in-class spectrum until some online discussion has taken place. There will be five different opportunities for students to post online - after each section in the chapter. These online posts will replace the traditional class discussion They will respond to an online discussion prompt within Schoology. They will not be able to read their peers replies until they post their own. This will force them to give their own original thoughts and ensure that all students are involved. And, ideally, because students know that their peers will read and respond to their posts it will lead to higher-level discussion. The sixth and final discussion will not take place online, and we will have this discussion entirely in class. The final discussion comes at the end of the chapter - at the end of Reconstruction.

The question I will be hoping to answer is “What is the impact of using online discussion in a middle school social studies classroom?”

Data Collection Plan

The first method I will use to assess the impact of using Schoology and online discussion in my class will be to make note of the posting frequency. I keep track of what percentage of students post, which should help me to determine the overall participation of students in the discussion. However, I will also determine how many students responded to their peers, and how often they responded. This second metric will be more important as it will hopefully give me a better idea of how much actual discussion is taking place, as opposed to students just posting their thoughts without reading and responding to their peers. 

The second method I will use will personal notes and analysis of the posts. I plan to make notes on the depth and quality of the discussion, as well as other reactions that I have to the discussion taking place. Although I have no notes from previous years, this will help to give me some insight into whether or not the online discussion, on the whole, is better or worse than previous years in terms of the depth of the argument and quality of the discussion put forth by the students.

The third and final method of data collection will be a student survey given at the end of the chapter. Survey questions will ask students to provide insights into the online discussion and how it compares to normal in-class discussion. Questions will be quantitative as well as qualitative. This piece of the puzzle will be incredibly important to the entire process as it gives the direct insights and reflections of my students.


  1. First let me introduce myself. My name is Scott Bruns. I'm a Social Studies teacher in Faribault where I teach 7th grade American Studies. I think we may have met at the Spring Conference in one of the many sessions. One of our assignments for blogging this month is to reach out to other community learners and make some connections.

    Your lesson on Reconstruction sounds very engaging for the students and possibly including an online discussion board for this and other topics sounds intriguing. I liked that you used movement in your classroom for a human spectrum graph.

    In relation to the discussion board idea on limiting what they see of their peer's posts--I think that is an excellent idea. It allows them to formulate their own idea first, before seeing others. which, like you said, is common in class discussions. Have you ever thought of having students evaluate other students during a discussion--it makes the discussion less organic but sometimes force students to participate, extend answers, and dig deeper--just a thought If you would like a copy of a student evaluation form for a discussion, feel free to shoot me an email and I can shoot you a data copy of one.

    1. Scott, that's a really interesting idea to have students evaluating others during a discussion...I'd definitely like to try something like that...I'll get in touch! Thanks!