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Group formation and the use of discussion fora during (online) groupwork

This article will show an example of how to use discussion fora in Brightspace for group work and how to organize groups.

Discussion forum: Questions to farmer Tim, Life from Ter Linde and Crop synthesis

Course: FSE30306 Analysis and Design of Organic Farming Systems

Period: Period 6 (2019)

Short Introduction and background

Introduction and story behind the emergence of this learning activity. What was the need, what issue/problem was the teacher facing and wanted to resolve? 

For most students, this is the last course they take before they start working on their thesis. Within this course, students learn to integrate all the knowledge they have gathered so far and will apply it in a real-life case. The students arrive with different luggage since they took different routes to get here. This results in different starting levels between the students.

The course is divided into three blocks. Block one focuses on the integration of agronomical knowledge. Here concepts and tools are introduced to for farm diagnosis and redesign at field, farm and landscape level. Lectures provide the basic (agronomical) knowledge that is required for the course and ensures that knowledge gaps (due to different backgrounds) are closed. The learning activities that are normally used are live lectures and live computer practicals taking up whole days.

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In block two students go for a ten-day field trip to a farm to gain practical experience in evaluating the performance of farming systems and understanding farm management. Students are invited to use their hands, heart and head with hands-on fieldwork, and interaction with a young and ambitious farmer about farm management and decision making. This field trip aims at a holistic understanding of the farm. In block three the groups work out a redesign scenario for the farm where they stayed based on the data they gathered, using the concepts and tools taught in block one. Due to Corona live lectures and live computer practicals were not possible. The students could not go on the ten-day field trip either and could not collect data like they used to. Therefore the course needed to change to be able to meet the learning goals.

This showcase illustrates how the discussion fora were used.

Relevant tools / apps (software) or hardware used

Learning outcome(s)

What has been learned after this lesson/activity has been executed ?

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Lesson idea / Learning activity

Specific description and demonstration of the lesson idea/learning activity.

Groupwork is an important part of this course.

Normally the groups for the computer practical are formed by the students themselves. Knowledge gaps become clear to the lecturers during the lectures in which there is a lot of interaction with the students. During the first block, students are stimulated to identify and close their knowledge gaps by peer-to-peer learning in practicals and self-study. In this way, they complement each other. During the computer practical several lecturers are available to help with the assignments and to give additional help and explanations. Since the lectures were being taught online and were shortened this insight into the different knowledge gaps of the students was not or less visible to the teachers.

For this online year groups of 2 or 3 students from different backgrounds but within the same time zone were now put together.  In principle, all students did the practical sessions live in breakout rooms, with teachers visiting on a regular basis (a few times per day). Exceptions were made for students in different time zones (US, Brazil, China), these students could plan their group work according to their convenience.

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During the practical, the students worked together in their own break-out room in Zoom. In this way, they could reach out to each other with questions. They could also call in the help of a lecturer who was available in the zoom environment. Screen take-over is possible within Zoom and was used often by the lecturer or a fellow student. Each lecturer monitored a few break-out rooms and in this way had a good grasp of what was going on in the groups.

While working in the break-out rooms, a discussion forum was used to communicate with each other. Students could share tips on the forum and lecturers added clips showing the correct use of the tool if necessary.

The practical sessions were sometimes interrupted for short (5 minutes) plenary sessions if there was a need detected by the teachers which rotated through the break-out rooms. During this plenary part, difficulties or bottlenecks were addressed. After this plenary part, the students went back to their break-out rooms and so on.

To make sure students could work independently on the assignments without having to consult the lecturer all the time, the assignments were described in a more detailed way than normally. In this way, the students needed less support and could continue their learning process at their own pace.

At the end of the day, one or more example exam questions were posted on the discussion forum. The students posted answers to these questions and responded to each other's answers too. The next morning lecturers would join in and comment on the answers too.

During block two and three the students worked in different groups. Since going to the farm was not an option, the fieldwork needed to be redesigned. This is described in another showcase: Fieldwork redesign: how to make it as real as possible

These new groups were formed based on the location of the students, were they located in Wageningen or not and if not, were they located in a rural area or in a city.

At the end of each day, the groups posted a short recap of what they did that day on a discussion forum. In this way, students could learn from each other. The lectures responded to these posts instantly.

A more general discussion forum, the so-called ‘Lounge discussion forum’ had a more student engagement and fun purpose; each day a riddle or a challenge was posted by the lecturers.

Lessons learned / Tips

Mentions tips lecturer has for colleagues based on their experience (what went well | what could improve | what will you keep).

We will keep on using the discussion fora, it is a nice way to connect with each other.

Group formation:

  • Give time to the students in break-out rooms to get to know each other. This can be facilitated through guiding questions which are related to the content of the course (e.g. what is your strength, how can I help you).
  • Stick to the same group for a couple of sessions, then students get to know each other. It is however nice to change groups as well, to give a new dynamic and to get to know more people calculate the time for this.

Discussion Forum use:

  • Try to get students active on the forum, it feels nice when it is a shared place where teachers and students interact (so not dominated by the teachers).
  • Schedule time for forum contributions (both for students as for teachers).

Contacts

Teacher(s): Roos de Adelhart Toorop, Dirk van Apeldoorn, Walter Rossing
Educational supporters/ESC contact (on MS Teams): 
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Author (interviewer): Anniek Wintraeken

Attachments

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