Student Perceptions of Electronic Discussion Groups

The use of technology, and especially the use of telecommunications tools, has begun to change the face of education. As college classrooms begin to employ the latest technologies, both student-professor and student-student interactions can be extended and enhanced. According to Pardee, ìcommunication technology can serve as an extension of traditional classroom instruction.î[1] Pardee further states that use of an electronic news group (we refer to this as an electronic discussion group) has many benefits over the traditional forms of classroom discussion, citing convenience, depth of commitment, and exam preparation among these benefits.

At California Lutheran University, a number of faculty members use electronic discussion groups as part of their regular course activities. Discussion groups are a tool to enrich and expand studentsí educational experience beyond the classroom.

One psychological benefit to an electronic discussion group is that it caters to the needs of all students. Some students are impulsive learners. These people have the urge and the need to respond to every question or to make a comment on everything discussed in class. Other students, reflective learners, need more time to process the question/issue before responding. Discussion groups act as equalizers of opportunity to participate. They give the impulsive learner time to calm down and the reflective learner time to put his/her thoughts together. Often those students who depend on verbal domination in class may be less wordy in writing and vice versa.

Another benefit noted by some faculty and students is that in classes using an electronic discussion group, a greater sense of community is fostered. Faculty monitoring the groups noticed that in addition to the ìbusinessî of the class, students often sent personal notes to each other or to the group as a whole. In at least two courses, the class members decided to bring cookies to class, and each week one member would take on that responsibility. In another, the professor noticed that students began to give each other professional help and advice beyond the environs of class discussion. One student in this class even found a job through another class memberís help. At the close of the semester, that class asked the professor to keep the listserv open so they could continue to communicate with each other. In another class, at the last meeting of the semester, students stated they had developed a feeling of closeness never before experienced in an academic setting.

Participants in an electronic discussion group have to write. (Discussion groups are conducted by e-mail.) Students therefore think before they express their ideas because they have to write instead of just speaking impulsively. The act of writing teaches people to think. When students organize their thoughts in order to communicate with others, they increase their knowledge of a subject.[2]

One of the important skills gained through college education is that of being able to write coherently for the purpose of communication. A discussion list is an excellent tool through which these skills develop in a natural, non-threatening atmosphere. The quality of responses to the discussion improves because participants have enough time to think, process and fine-tune their ideas.

Electronic discussion groups also provide convenient interaction; students and teacher respond according to their time schedule. They are not rushed to produce ìan answerî on the spot, as they are in a classroom. They respond when they are in the mood. Some people are ìmorning peopleî and others ìnight owls.î The electronic discussion group allows them to contribute when they are most alert. In this way, the electronic discussion group provides an experience in distance education -- education unconstrained by time and place.

Need for Assessment

One concern we hear most frequently addressed when discussing integration of new technologies with colleagues pertains to assessment.

As professors use electronic discussion groups, virtual libraries and distance learning tools, they want to know how effective these tools are in terms of student outcomes. Administrators want to know if the cost of the new technologies is justified in terms of student learning. Bozik assessed changes of student behavior as a result of participation in an interactive video class at the University of Iowa, Cedar Falls. She found that students perceived no difference in the behaviors surveyed.[3]

Our research was designed to discover if student behaviors changed as a result of participation in an electronic discussion group. We believed that the convenience of interaction, the provision for different kinds of learners, and the opportunity to ìthink through writingî would be evidenced in changes in student behaviors.

Who Was Surveyed and How

We obtained a list of discussion groups from the listproc (ListProcessor) at the university. Professors likely to be currently using electronic discussion groups were asked via e-mail for permission to survey their students. A sample list of questions was provided each professor. All the professors using electronic discussion groups responded with information about the class(es) for which they used these groups, and gave us permission to survey their classes.

The following curricular areas were represented: business (marketing), organic chemistry, political science (global studies, philosophy, English, religion, drama, ESL American culture, and education (educational technology and special education). Three of the courses were cross-discipline studies, combining two areas of the curriculum and team-taught by two professors.

Faculty responding to our request were asked two questions. Question one asked them to state their reasons for using electronic discussion groups. Following are several faculty membersí answers:

  • ï ìTo facilitate overall discussion in what is a fairly large class, to permit students to develop critical-analysis skills with respect to marketing activities they read about, and as a forum to comment on assignments and journals.î

    ï ìTo encourage group interaction on problems.î

    ï ìTo stimulate discussion and build class share URLs and reviews, and stimulate conversation amongst students. Since [the class] meets only once a week, I wanted a listproc to serve as a mechanism to keep students talking in the stretches between class meetings.î

    ï ìTo facilitate after-hours student academic interaction, encourage shy ones, and facilitate community and mutual learning.î

    ï ìTo extend class discussions (we never seem to have enough time) and to give students who donít speak in class an opportunity to voice their views.î

    ï ìTo encourage [ESL students] to become more fluent in English and also to become more comfortable in using the computer.î

    ï ìTo provide a forum for discussion of current topics in the field that students can use at their own time and convenience, and to foster a sense of community among members of the class.î
  • The second question asked faculty members to identify the topics they used for discussion in these groups. Following are quotes from e-mail responses received:

  • ï ìI choose topics from the discussion and application questions in the textbook. In addition, students initiate topics themselves from their journals and readings.î

    ï ìMy intent was/is to have the students select problems that they are having difficulty with.î

    ï ìTopics are grounded in class discussions.î

    ï ìUsually the topic comes out of class discussion -- extending it; occasionally I ask for a response to readings.î

  • The Survey

    In the fall of 1996, eight professors used electronic discussion groups as a part of their required course work. Ninety-six students were surveyed, and all responded. The high response rate was due to the surveyís being delivered to each professor at the beginning of class and collected at the end of class by a student assistant hired for the purpose. The survey used questions from Bozikís survey with permission of the author.

    The current survey extended those questions to cover three additional behaviors: (1) the tendency to write more coherently; (2) the tendency to participate outside the normal workday; and (3) the tendency to think more before answering discussion questions. A sample of the survey questions and responses is found in Table 1.

    Survey Results Detailed

    For most of the behaviors surveyed, student response showed that there was a fairly even split between their being more likely to exhibit a behavior and their perceiving no difference in their behavior.

    Those who responded that they were less likely to exhibit a behavior comprised less than 10 % of the population, except for one item. Thirteen percent (13%) of students responded that they were less likely to answer a teacher-asked question when in electronic discussion groups. Further analysis revealed that those who answered they were less likely to engage in the behaviors on four or more items also added comments to the effect that they disliked electronic discussion groups in general.

    Of the students reporting that their behavior was less likely to change in four or more categories, all but two reported their behavior more likely to change on a majority of the other items. Reasons given were that they had no easy access to the technology, that they did not like a public forum for discussion, or that they felt participation should be optional and not affect their grade in the course.

    Implications of the Research

    From an instructional point of view, it is significant that approximately 50 % of the students were more likely to exhibit desired behaviors as a result of participating in electronic discussions. Instructors who want to increase the likelihood of studentsí exhibiting the behaviors surveyed in this study should consider using electronic discussion groups as a tool for learning.

    The item about answering an instructor-asked question (less likely, 13%) can be viewed as a result of increased student-to-student interaction. If that is the case, then perhaps in using electronic discussion groups the instructor begins to act more as a facilitator of the learning process than as a director of learning.

    Furthermore, although some students clearly objected to being required to participate in electronic discussions, it is apparent that use of these discussions is beneficial to their performance in class. This is significant because even though they did not like participating, they reported changed behavior in some categories. We believe that this is the first step in these studentsí change process, and this should encourage faculty to persist in using current technologies.

    Our research on student perceptions of the use of electronic discussion groups provides insight into the changed behaviors of participating students. Favorable results should encourage other faculty at the institution and elsewhere to include electronic discussions as an integral part of teaching in particular, and the teaching-learning process in general.

    Silva Karayan is Assistant Professor of Education at California Lutheran University and chair of the Teaching and Learning Center for Faculty Development.

    E-mail: [email protected]

    Judith Crowe is Coordinator of Educational Technology at California Lutheran University. E-mail: [email protected]

    The authors teach classes in both the undergraduate and graduate programs at the university. They have used electronic discussion groups with their classes for the past two years, and conduct ongoing research into this and other uses of instructional technology.


    1. Pardee, M. H. (June, 1996), ìUsing E-Mail, Web Sites & Newsgroups to Enhance Traditional Classroom Instruction,î T.H.E. Journal, 23(11), pp. 79-82.
    2. Miller, E., Murray-Ward, M. & Harder, H. (1994), Reading and Language Arts for All Students: A Practical Guide for Teaching in the Content Area, Dubuque, IA: Kendall-Hunt Publishing, p. 200.

    Bozik, M. (September, 1996), ìStudent Perceptions of a Two-Way Interactive Video Class,î T.H.E. Journal, 24(2), pp. 99-100.

    This article originally appeared in the 04/01/1997 issue of THE Journal.