The STEAM-Active (Project Number: 2021-1-ES01-KA220-HED-000032107) project is funded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Education and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA). Neither the European Union nor EACEA can be held responsible for them.

Promoting and Managing Student-Student Interactions in Online STEM Classes

Partners' Institution
University of Perugia
Year of publication
Educational stage
University Level
Journal name
International Journal of Engineering Education
Thematic Area
STEAM intervention (teaching strategies, evaluation...)
Collaborative activities and interactive student engagements to promote student learning outcomes, students’ retention, and students’ attitude in face-to-face (F2F) courses have been proven effective in various research studies. A particular valuable attribute of collaborative activities is their power to instill social presence (students’ feeling that their classmates and teacher are people who can provide cooperation and support). A lack of social presence can be easily found in online courses, caused by the isolating environment of online interactions. This paper is a review of studies concerning online student-student and student-teacher interactions aimed at collaborative activities that can address this issue. In particular, the focus is on two approaches suitable for STEM courses: discussion boards and online cooperative learning. When well-structured, they can be used to help students develop skills in high-level analytical problem solving, creative thinking, and communication in the same ways F2F activities can. To this aim, the paper provides numerous recommendations and guidelines to create, manage, and evaluate discussion boards and online cooperative learning approaches.
Relevance for Complex Systems Knowledge
Collaborative online activities have an advantage over F2F courses as they can be carried out both synchronously and asynchronously. Both the activities analyzed in the paper are asynchronous for the most part with occasional synchronous meetings. Before delving in the details, the study provides some standard recommendations for making small-group synchronous online collaborations effective:
- Make activities challenging enough to justify the time it takes to get into groups and establish communications.
- Before sending students into breakout rooms, give them clear instructions about what they are supposed to do (consider putting instructions in a shared document).
- Keep groups together throughout class sessions (If the session is composed of more activities don’t change groups. Changing groups between sessions is fine). This is done to avoid the setup times typical of groups working together for the first time.
- Keep activities short and focused, 2-8 minutes should generally be enough. If the STEM problems take longer to solve break them up into smaller chunks. The key is to use activities only for the difficult or tricky parts of the problem and quickly show the solutions of the straightforward parts to the whole class.
- Don’t just call for volunteers to report out after every activity is concluded. Instead, randomly call on individual students in the group.
The value of in-class discussions in F2F classes is well documented in literature. Discussion Boards (DB), in which students asynchronously post responses to instructors’ prompts and other students’ comments, can provide similar benefits. Moreover, DBs promote equity and inclusivity in online courses, as they can stimulate engagement of students who may shy away from active participation for many reasons such as having an introverted nature, being from a minority group, needing more time to gather their thoughts than synchronous discussions allow, or having speech/hearing impediments/other learning disabilities.
The questions examined in the paper are:
- How to structure discussion boards effectively?
- What role should the teacher have and how active should he/she be?
- How can the quality of student postings be assessed?
For what concern the effective structuring/planning of the DB, research suggests writing and sharing observable learning objectives that will be addressed in the DB. If the objectives include development of high-skill thinking and problem-solving skills the prompts and questions should require exercising them. Moreover, good prompt should involve ConcepTests (multiple-choice trick questions) or coming up with practical examples. Lastly, participation should count toward the final grade in a small amount to promote participation.
Research studies show that active instructor participation in DBs is very important, as it provides benefits such as raising the number of students posting, promoting deeper thinking, and keeping the discussion from drifting off the topic. On the other hand, instructors should avoid over-involvement, which can cause overreliance and decrease students’ contribution. Scaffolding (providing a high level of support early in an enterprise and gradually withdrawing it) is one of the suggested strategies. Students’ academic levels should also be a factor in decisions about how much support instructors should provide; undergraduates need more guidelines and deadlines whereas mature students would benefit from more autonomy.
For the last point, a manageable way to assess contributions of individual students to a DB is to use a grading rubric, a form that lists the criteria to be used for grading a student product and assigns ratings or maximum point values to each criterion. Alternatively, students can be asked to develop a participation portfolio. The portfolio is a self-graded selection of their best postings using a rubric, which is then submitted to the instructor who reviews it and modifies the grades if necessary.
The last part of the publication concerns cooperative learning approaches. In cooperative learning (CL), the instructor chooses between instructor-formed and student self-selected teams, specifies team-formation criteria, and structures the course to promote students’ development of both technical and teamwork skills. Cooperative learning has been widely used in STEM education, due to the emphasis on teamwork skills that is required in team project in business, industry, and scientific research fields. CL can be classified as asynchronous in an online context as the entire classes do not meet synchronously but only project teams do. The CL model discussed in the study is based on 5 tenets:
1) Positive interdependence: team members rely on one another to complete assignments. If any team members fail to do their part, everyone suffers consequences. Promoting positive interdependence can be done in various ways. One approach is giving assignments that are too challenging to be completed by individual students. Another common strategy is to assign specific roles to team members: expert and management. Experts are trained in a specific set of knowledge needed to complete the project whereas management ensures that the team operates smoothly and effectively.
2) Individual accountability: all students in a group are held accountable for doing their share of the work and for mastering all the material to be learned. Assessment of individual contributions can be done through tools such as CATME and ePearl. Also assigning students to specific roles promotes individual accountability
3) Promotive real-time student interactions: team members must work together constructively at least occasionally, rather than simply dividing the work among themselves and binding the results together at the end. Interpersonal problem common in team-based learning are exacerbated in asynchronous communications. Thus, synchronous interactions such as video conferences between team members are particularly important.
4) Appropriate use of collaborative skills: students develop and practice trust-building, leadership, decision-making, communication, and conflict management skills. The above-mentioned CATME or similar team-management tools are useful also in this context.
5) Regular self-assessment of team functioning: teams set goals, periodically assess what they are doing well, and identify changes they will make to function more effectively in the future.
Point of Strength
The publication provides useful information and guidelines on how to approach online teaching methods for STEM students.
active student engagement, cooperative learning, discussion boards, online
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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

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