Designing for interaction with peers

Designing learning activities to enable learner – learner interaction and engagement with peers, is often called social learning, or enabling a social presence. Hurst, Wallace and Nixon (2013) state that social interaction improves student learning by enhancing knowledge, critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Examples may include:

  • Asynchronous discussion forums in which students share course concepts to their experiences
  • Small group work on projects
  • Group wikis and blogs
  • Peer review of classmates’ papers
  • Student-led discussions
  • Class develops their own repository of exam revision notes
  • Class biography (text or video)
  • A research process in which groups work together to devise ways of tackling a complex problem

Group discussions

Group discussion questions are one of the most common strategies and activities in both face-to-face and online learning. They allow you to check for understanding, to build community, and to integrate collaborative learning. They also enable students to learn from one another's experiences. Keep in mind though that not all discussion questions are created equally. A study by Richardson, Sadaf and Ertmer (2011) found that there are a number of types of discussion question prompts that can be used in various situations and which take different levels of learning into account. For example, a 'brainstorming' discussion question prompt would be more likely to encourage students to respond at a triggering or exploration level, than at the higher levels of integration and resolution.

  • Playground – Questions require the interpretation or analysis of a specific aspect of the material, or 'playground' for discussion. Students are free to discover and interpret the material.
  • Brainstorm – Questions ask students to generate a number of conceivable ideas, viewpoints, or solutions related to a specified issue. Students are free to generate any or all ideas on the topic.
  • Focal Question – Questions relate to a specific issue and require students to make a decision or take a position and justify it. Students are asked to support one of several possible positions.
  • General Invitation – Questions invite a wide range of responses within a broad topic in an open or unfocused discussion.
  • Lower-level divergent – Questions require students to analyse information to discover reasons, draw conclusions, or make generalisations.
  • Analytic convergent – Students are required to examine a relevant material and produce a straightforward conclusion, summarise material, or describe a sequence of steps in a process. Answers require analytical thought but lead to a single correct answer.
  • Shotgun – Multiple questions that may contain two or more content areas.
  • Funnel – Prompt begins with a broad opening question, followed by one or more narrower questions, and ending with a very concrete question.
  • Critical incident – Questions relate to a scenario or case study students have read; students are typically asked to propose solutions to the issues presented in the scenario/case study.

Social learning online

An early reluctance to learning online is that many believe you cannot connect or create relationships in the online space. However, social media and online dating shows that networking, engagement with others in virtual environments and the development of online relationships are common place. Thus it is possible to create opportunities for social learning, however there are unique challenges for engagement, motivation and connection. Without face-to-face contact, we are unable to pick up nonverbal cues from students that may indicate disengagement or frustration.

The anonymous feeling of the online environment may make it easier for students to withdraw, or minimalise their participation. When planning to deliver teaching online you need to consider including regular opportunities for both teacher led and informal interaction which can be achieved using a variety of tools.

It is also important to set up an early expectation of engagement and interaction – for example through an early discussion activity – and use reports in Moodle to monitor activity and identify students who aren’t participating.

Resources, strategies or assistance

Resources – Text/articles

  • Hurst,B., Wallace, R. and Nixon, S. (2014) The impact of social interaction on student learning. Reading Horizons (Online). Vol 52, No. 4
  • Ertmer, P. & Sadaf, A. & Ertmer, D. (2011). Student-content interactions in online courses: The role of question prompts in facilitating higher-level engagement with course content. J. Computing in Higher Education. 23. 157-186. 10.1007/s12528-011-9047-6.