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Making online discussions that are meaningful, manageable and ChatGPT “resistant”

Online discussion boards or forums have become quite commonplace in online and hybrid settings. Used well, online discussions can be a great way to facilitate reflection on content, connections between learners and critical thinking skills. 

In this article, professor Andy Hyer describes ways to help make online discussions manageable, meaningful, and ChatGPT “resistant.”

Professor Andy Hyer
Professor Andy Hyer

Making online discussions manageable

I like to think about online discussion assignments as an activity where I break students into small groups much as I do in a face-to-face class. In a face-to-face class where small group discussions are a significant part of the class, class attendance and participation are required and worth points — but not a whole lot of points. I try to give groups some engaging prompts to work from and then roam around the room listening in and addressing questions. In the face-to-face class context, I can’t tell if every group is completely on task all of the time. If some students make comments that are a bit off-base or incorrect, I probably wouldn’t be able to correct all of them in all of the group discussions — nor would I want to. Rather, I’d want students to feel comfortable in their discussions. So long as students stayed engaged for a substantial portion of the discussion period, everyone would receive credit for participating, even if some students were more engaged than others.

Treat it as a “low-stakes” assignment that is graded on a participation basis.

In online discussions, students should feel comfortable exploring ideas. Everything they share may not be completely accurate or reflect a full understanding of the concepts presented; class discussions are a tool to help students develop that understanding. In that context, online discussions should be worth a relatively small portion of the student’s grade and graded on a participation basis. Where there are clear expectations for the level of participation, students meeting those expectations can expect to receive full credit. It also means that the instructor doesn’t need to provide detailed feedback on every aspect of the discussion. For example, in the Canvas LMS, the instructor could skim through posts using the Speedgrader and does not necessarily need to reply to posts in the discussion board itself.

Set consistent, straightforward expectations

Although there may be advantages to changing things up week-to-week in certain contexts, in my view, online students appreciate consistent expectations. So although the content discussed changes, overall discussion expectations should be pretty much the same. There should be clear expectations regarding the number of posts, replies, and the content to be presented in each post. And if a student meaningfully participates in the discussion early in the week and makes the requisite number of replies, they should not be docked points for not participating towards the end of the week. 

Consider taking a “spot-checking” or “random audit” approach to grading

If you have a lot of students, consider taking a “spot-checking” approach to grading: closely review some student’s posts some of the time and only do a cursory review at other times. I teach in the health sciences where students pursuing careers in health professions will anticipate random audits of medical charts and billing records. I use that analogy to explain how I will periodically select some posts for a more careful review at different points in the semester.

Consider implementing such a “spot-checking” approach to grading through either or both of the following:

  • Select a few discussion boards where you will more closely review all students’ posts.  You will need to budget more time for yourself that week to grade that discussion. I recommend doing this on a discussion board early in the semester to help set expectations and provide feedback for improvement that students will be able to incorporate into subsequent discussion boards throughout the semester. 
  • Create a spreadsheet to keep track of when you have more closely reviewed a specific student’s discussion board post. For example, let’s say that at the beginning of the semester, you aim to closely review four of the weekly discussion board posts for each student on a rotating schedule. You could use that spreadsheet to keep track of which students’ posts have more been closely reviewed and when so each student has their posts closely reviewed an equal amount of times.

I don’t tell students when or how often a close review of their posts will occur. I like to give myself a bit of flexibility in this depending on how the course is going at different points in the semester. 

For the posts I select for closely review, I provide more detailed written feedback and/or use a detailed rubric to award points. I explain this approach to grading in the syllabus. This helps students understand why they may receive full credit on some discussion boards despite minor deficiencies in their posts (e.g., if it is graded on a participatory basis) while they have points docked for those deficiencies on a discussion board post that is randomly “spot-checked” for close review.

Making online discussions meaningful

Although online discussions should be manageable for students to complete and for you to grade, the goal should still be to facilitate meaningful opportunities for critical thinking and the exchange of ideas.

Require students to pose a discussion question in their initial post

In my experience, the single easiest way to make discussion boards more meaningful is to have students pose their own discussion questions at the end of their initial post. This allows students to ask questions or pursue topics that they would like to be addressed.  

In one of my online classes, I use the following instructions for discussion questions:

In your initial post, in addition to addressing the question prompts above, pose a discussion question for your classmates. Please focus on the following in crafting your discussion question:

  • Pose a question that is distinct from the questions already posed in the discussion question prompts
  • Pose a question aimed at generating discussion and debate within your group by eliciting students’ informed opinions or viewpoints, rather than just quizzing knowledge.
  • Pose a question that is specific enough that your classmates can meaningfully address them in four or five sentences. 
  • Use your question as an opportunity to demonstrate your familiarity with specific concepts from the module.”

Consider periodic bonus points for students who go above and beyond with their participation

Different faculty and academic departments have differing views or policies on awarding “extra credit.” However, if this is something you are open to doing in your classes, consider periodically awarding a very small extra-credit “bonus” to students who go above and beyond expectations in how they participate in online discussions I have found this to be a good way to reward students who meaningfully engage in discussions and contribute to other students’ learning while still keeping the overall expectations straightforward for other students. 

Making online discussions ChatGPT “resistant”

The impact of artificial intelligence (AI) programs, like ChatGPT, on written assessments in higher education is evolving. It is likely that some best practices or tools will emerge in the coming years, both in terms of how to guide students in the ethical use of AI and in how to detect unethical use of AI. In the meantime, here are a few guiding principles I am trying to adopt in how I approach online discussions in the era of ChatGPT.

Online discussions will not be 100% “ChatGPT-proof”

Unless your students are handwriting their assignments in a proctored environment, it is possible they will use AI programs to help them complete assignments. There are ways to mitigate the misuse of ChatGPT, Bard or other AI programs in completing these assignments, including being hyper-specific in how discussion prompts relate to the assigned course content and students’ own experiences and goals. 

Consider the following two prompts:

  1. What are the major challenges facing U.S. health care and what should be done to address them?
  2. On pages 47-48 of the textbook, the authors discuss seven major challenges facing U.S. health care. If you had to pick just one, which of these seven challenges do you believe should be the top priority in trying to address? How do you see your work in your future career impacted by the top priority challenge you selected?

ChatGPT could churn out a very good essay in response to the first prompt that does nothing to assess how well the student understands the content. At least for the time being, ChatGPT would struggle to substantively answer the second prompt without more information. When designing question prompts, write them in a way that requires students to connect their own personal experiences, goals and viewpoints to the concepts being learned.  

Less is more

If students are asked to write a lengthy essay addressing a vague discussion prompt, there is a greater temptation to let a machine do it for them. But if they are asked to very concisely share their viewpoints on something personally relevant to them, they will likely find it more meaningful to just do it themselves. Ask students to provide a list of three key bullet points rather than three to five paragraphs.  

Test your prompts in ChatGPT

It is worth your time to log into ChatGPT or Bard and see the types of responses they generate when you copy and paste your question prompts into them. See if you can make them less susceptible to thoughtless ChatGPT use by making them focus on specific points from the course content.

Make ChatGPT-susceptible assignments low-stakes

If there is concern that ChatGPT could be used in a way that undermines what the assignment is trying to assess, the assignment should be low-stakes and only worth a relatively small percentage of a student’s total grade.

Summary and Conclusion

Implementing effective online discussions requires careful consideration of various factors. With a little consideration of potential pitfalls to avoid, you can create manageable and meaningful discussions while minimizing the potential impact of AI language models like ChatGPT. Focus on setting clear expectations, take an approach to grading that is manageable for you and design prompts that foster critical thinking and personal engagement. With that focus, online discussions can continue to be valuable tools for collaborative learning.

Resources

Article Credit

Thanks to professor Andy Hyer and Noreen Beckie, the eCampus instructional design consultant and manager who worked with Hyer to design some of his online courses. Feel free to email Hyer at andyhyer@boisestate if you have any questions or would like examples of how to implement some of these ideas.