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February 26, 2018

Research–tutored teaching – Abigail Ball

My students learnt how to critically review two articles from the library database; this combined practical how-to skills with deeper critical thinking skills both of which would stand them in good stead for completing their assignments.

Whilst this is a relatively easy task to undertake in a face to face classroom it is a bit more difficult in an online one – my students were located all around the world. The first hurdle was making sure that all of them could access the library database and then making the instructions very clear so that they all downloaded the correct articles. I was surprised at how much support they needed to get them to this point but once everything was in place they were then given some question prompts to get them started.

I asked each of the students to think of two reasons why they believed that one of the articles was more reliable than the other. I explained that there was no real right or wrong answer to the task and that I had my own views on which one I thought was the most reliable but I did not share these with them until I gave them their feedback. They were expected to think critically and to explain their views in an online discussion forum – commenting on what their peers contributed as well as posting their own thoughts.

I was concerned that I had given the students too much information and that they would just end up regurgitating the prompt questions but I needn’t have worried; the students really embraced the work and produced a comprehensive list of points which included some things that I really did not think they would consider. I think they benefitted from not knowing my thoughts at the start and also from the safe environment that encouraged discussion and questioning. This was one of the benefits of using a closed online forum and in making sure that they all started from the same point. I was also encouraged to see how much discussion and critical questioning emerged during the time allocated for the task. I know there are many concerns around group work with the term ‘lurkers’ being bandied about (particularly in an online context) but this really did not happen; everyone contributed and added new and appropriate content to the discussion.

On reflection some of the reasons this activity succeeded included:

  • Relevance – the students recognised that they needed to learn these skills for subsequent tasks and assignments
  • Scaffolding – the students were facilitated through a range of different activities which gradually became harder and less supported; this allowed those students who were less familiar with online studying and/or academic articles to pace themselves
  • Safe environment – the students were in a closed discussion forum where they could undertake divergent thinking without fear of failure
  • Co-creation – the students worked on the activity together building the ‘answer’ between them; this gave them the opportunity to bond as a group which again contributed to future activities and tasks

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