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Group discussion in online statistics courses

By Michelle Everson / April 2006

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I recently played a role in creating online versions of three statistics courses offered through my department. We decided to create online versions of these courses because we found that we were continuously running out of seats in our face-to-face courses. We also knew that many students who enrolled in our courses traveled to campus from all over the state, and we hoped online sections would better accommodate them. I spent one year working closely with our academic technology specialists to adapt our semester-long face-to-face courses to the online environment. I then began teaching two of these online courses—the undergraduate- and graduate-level introductory statistics courses—in the Fall of 2004. In the Fall of 2005, I taught a graduate-level intermediate statistics course for the first time.

Using Small-Group Discussion Assignments

When developing the graduate-level statistics course for the online environment, I tried to adapt what we did successfully in the classroom. Our statistics courses are innovative in that we try to keep lecture at a minimum and instead spend class time working through activities and engaging students in discussion. We try to create a classroom environment where students can apply what they learn and collaborate with one another in order to better understand important concepts. In accordance with the recent Guidelines for Assessment and Instruction in Statistics Education [3], we attempt to foster active learning in our classrooms and provide opportunities for students to develop a more conceptual understanding of course material.

Within the last ten years, several statistics educators have published descriptions of online statistics courses that incorporate opportunities for students to interact not only with the instructor, but with one another [1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7]. Interaction opportunities often involve engaging in weekly chats with the instructor and other students, working in assigned discussion groups on a regular basis in order to answer specific questions posed by the instructor (or by other students), or working in discussion groups to complete a single group project. To facilitate collaboration in my online course, I decided to require students to complete a series of small-group assignments throughout the semester. These assignments were designed to provide students with a discussion forum in which they could explore statistical concepts, share opinions and ideas, and help each other learn important course material.

At the beginning of each semester, I assign students to an asynchronous discussion group. Enrollment in each of my online courses is capped at 35 students, so I try to create a total of six discussion groups, each with roughly five to six students. Students work within their particular discussion group all semester. I use WebCT in my courses, so each group is given its own discussion board area within the WebCT environment. As I assign students to groups, I look closely at my class lists and attempt to include a mix of different majors or areas of study within each group. This way, I hope that students will bring unique perspectives to group discussion and learn more from one another.

Each discussion group is required to work on eight small-group assignments during the course of the semester. For each assignment, they are given a particular topic to discuss, and questions to answer based on this topic. For example, one week, students might be given a description of an experiment and they might be asked to critique this experiment and to come up with a better experimental design. Another week, after learning about a particular analysis technique, students might be asked to come up with unique examples from their own fields of study in which that technique could be used. Some assignments involve using statistical software or other computer applications to explore data sets or learn more about particular concepts, whereas others might focus more on interpreting statistical output and discussing the applications of statistical ideas. Each group assignment is designed to expand upon a topic that students are studying about that particular week.

Groups have up to one week to discuss the assignment, and they must elect a group leader who's willing to summarize the group discussion and submit an electronic summary to me by a particular deadline. The group leader always receives one point of extra credit for summarizing the discussion, which typically ensures that every group discussion will be led by at least one student, and that all groups will submit a summary. I provide students with detailed guidelines at the beginning of the semester about what I hope to see in their discussions. To get full participation credit, the group assignment must be submitted by the deadline, and each student must not only post their own thoughts about an assignment, they must also reflect upon and respond to at least one other posting made by one of their group members. Thus, although the group works together to complete the assignment, each student is still graded individually. In the guidelines provided to students at the beginning of the semester, I try to provide examples of what it means to be reflective and to respond in a meaningful way to what other students in the group have posted. I encourage students to ask each other questions, summarize and elaborate on what other group members have said, to help a fellow group member understand a concept if he or she posts something that seems incorrect, and to ask for help from the group whenever it's needed. I want students to use these groups as a way to actually discuss concepts and learn material, so I try to provide incentives for them to read what their peers write and actually respond to these messages. I do not want students to get into the habit of just posting their own thoughts and never going back to read what their group members write.

Another portion of the overall participation grade involves students grading each other at the end of the semester. Approximately 25 percent of each student's participation grade is based on the average grade given to that student by his or her discussion group members. I provide students with detailed instructions about how to grade one another, and students know at the beginning of the semester that part of their grade will be based on peer review. Originally, I thought that if students knew they would be graded by not only me but their peers, they would take the discussion assignments more seriously.

The lecture notes I create and post online for students often are based on the contents of group discussions. I use the group summaries to help create my notes, because I want lecture notes to address what students are having difficulty understanding. Therefore, rather than posting lecture notes at the beginning of each week, I wait until group discussions end and post lecture notes at the end of the week. This gives students an opportunity to learn material on their own and discuss it with one another, and it gives me the opportunity to tailor the lecture notes to misunderstandings or misconceptions that students have. I typically summarize all group discussions in my lecture notes, expand on the content students learned about during the week, and provide extra examples from which students can learn.

Some Important Lessons Learned

Each semester, I post a midterm feedback survey and an end-of-semester feedback survey on my course site, and I invite students to complete these anonymous surveys for extra credit. I am very feedback-oriented in my approach to teaching, and I use the feedback provided by students, along with my examination of student performance on various assignments and assessments, to make improvements in the course. I have received a lot of feedback over the last year and a half about students' perceptions of the usefulness of group discussions, and this feedback has helped me continuously revise small-group assignments. It has also helped me better understand just how students learn statistics.

Although the majority of my graduate-level students participate regularly in small-group discussion assignments and tend to agree that participating in these assignments contributes to their understanding of statistics, some students have expressed important concerns about working in discussion groups. For example, those students who are less enthusiastic about this component of the course indicate that it is sometimes difficult to respond to what other students in the group post, especially if everyone quickly arrives at the same answers to the group assignment. Some students worry about trusting what their discussion group members have to say. Others feel that more time is needed to fully discuss certain concepts, and that more interjections from the instructor (or teaching assistant) are necessary, if only to let the group know if it is on the right track.

After the Fall 2005 semester, I made some important changes in group assignments based on my synthesis of student comments and concerns. First, I carefully went back through all of my group assignment descriptions and tried to incorporate more opportunities for students to brainstorm and apply what they are learning about to solve real-world problems. I also asked students to reflect more on why an understanding of different statistical concepts is important. I hoped, by revising the assignments in this way, that students would each bring a unique perspective to the discussion, and that this, in turn, would lead to more opportunities for students to respond to one another during group discussion. Second, I extended the deadline for students to complete group discussions. Rather than require group summaries to be submitted by 5 pm on Friday, I now require that students submit these summaries by 9 am Monday morning. This allows students to continue working on the assignment through the weekend if they prefer. Third, I decided not to include peer-grading as part of each student's overall discussion grade. Although I tried to provide detailed guidelines for students to follow in order to assess the participation of their discussion group members, I found that some students would inevitably resort to using their own personal rubrics, and this meant grading was not consistent across different discussion groups. Some students took the task of grading their peers more seriously than others, and I sometimes felt the grades students assigned to their peers did not reflect what I witnessed in terms of individual participation in group discussion.

The biggest change I made in group assignments involves my own role in group discussions. Initially, when I first began teaching online, I worried that I might alter the dynamics of different discussion groups if I involved myself too much. I wanted students to learn from each other and to help one another develop an understanding of the course material, and I worried that my involvement in group discussions might somehow prevent this from happening. I thought it would be best for me to monitor the discussions without actually trying to participate in them unless it was absolutely necessary. So, during my first year of teaching this course online, I only participated in group discussions if all group members were on the wrong track, or if something inappropriate was going on in the discussion group. My role at that time, as far as the discussion component of my course was concerned, was more of a monitor.

I soon learned, largely through student feedback, that students wanted to hear more from me as they were working on their assignments. Although I always provided students with feedback about discussions when I created my lecture notes, many students wanted more personalized feedback. They wanted to know if their discussion group was thinking about things in the right way, and they wanted some assurance that things were not being said in their discussion group that might lead them to develop misunderstandings about important concepts.

I now see the value of being more visible in the different group discussions, and I make it a point now to post at least one time in each discussion group during every small-group discussion assignment. I feel my role now in discussion groups involves being a monitor, a facilitator, and a teacher. When I post, I might simply try to cheer the group on and let them know they are doing a good job. Or, I might highlight something important one group member has posted, or try to clarify if I see that a student has a misconception about something. Sometimes, I may even expand on something a group member posts, or I might ask the group to elaborate on something that was posted. Although I have only been participating this way in group discussions for less than one semester, I have already noticed that there seems to be more discussion going on in each group (as compared to the volume of discussions during previous semesters). I have also had individual students tell me that they appreciate my involvement in their discussions.

One thing I did not fully anticipate when I began teaching online is how much I would grow as an instructor, and how much I would learn about the ways in which students reason about statistics. Using discussion assignments in my courses has allowed me to gain an understanding of student learning that I am not sure I would have fully developed in the classroom. Certainly, a benefit of being in the classroom is that the instructor can use different visual cues (e.g., student body language, facial expressions, etc.) to better assess whether students are comprehending particular course material. The instructor can also provide more immediate feedback to students in the classroom by addressing questions on the spot. Visual cues are absent in the online environment, and sometimes, questions might remain unanswered for several hours. However, one main advantage about using discussion groups in the online environment is that the instructor can witness the full evolution of a group's discussion.

In the classroom, I often break students into groups in order to discuss different concepts and ideas. I then walk around the room, and I hear bits and pieces of each group discussion. Yet, I am never able to witness any group discussion from start to finish, and this means that I sometimes do not pick up on important misconceptions or misunderstandings that students might have. I am also not able to know for sure just how much each student has been able to contribute in these classroom discussions, and unless the group is able to tell me the entire contents of their group discussion, I may not have an opportunity to address or try to correct serious misconceptions about course material.

In my online classroom, I feel that I have a magical window in which to peer into ever discussion room, and from this window, I can learn more about how students reason about statistics. I have written records of every group discussion from start to finish, and I can carefully examine these records in order to better understand the possible misunderstandings students have. I can then address these misunderstandings for everyone when I put my lecture notes together, and I can use what I learn from group discussions to revise future group assignments. For example, if I notice that many students are having difficulty interpreting particular terms, or if they are focusing on the wrong information when trying to complete the group assignment, I can use this information to improve the assignments if I choose to use them again in future classes. Observing every group discussion from start to finish also allows me to better determine which students might need extra help and assistance, and I can then contact these students and try to provide more individualized instruction.


In this article, I summarized my attempt to use small-group discussion assignments in an online introductory statistics course. I have found that these assignments can be successful, and they can lead to opportunities for students to reason more about statistical concepts and help each other learn important course material. When using such assignments, I would encourage instructors to (1) create assignments that do not have just one "right" answer so that students have ample opportunities to discuss different ideas and respond to what their group members post, (2) allow several days for students to work on the assignment, (3) provide students with clear guidelines for every assignment so they know exactly what they need to do as a group, (4) provide incentives for students to post not only their own thoughts, but respond to what their group members have said, and (5) provide students with examples of what it means to reflectively respond to their peers. Most of all, I would encourage instructors to make their presence known to the discussion group during every discussion. Assure students that you will be there in order to make sure everyone is on the right track, and take whatever opportunity you can to cheer the group on, highlight important ideas that different members of the group have posted, and question the group in order to get them to think more critically about the material.

Using discussion group activities can be not only a great way to create an interactive learning community in the online classroom, but it can provide the instructor with valuable information about the ways in which students reason about important course material. This, in turn, can inform both teaching in the online environment and the physical classroom environment.


1. Davis, J., & Chao, F. (2004, June). Effective collaborative group activities for online statistics courses. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Hawaii International Conference on Statistics and Related Fields, Honolulu, HI.

2. Dereshiwsky, M. I. (1998). "Go figure": The surprising successes of teaching statistics courses via internet. Retrieved online September 22, 2004 at

3. GAISE (2005). GAISE college report. Retrieved online June 1, 2005 at

4. Grandzol, J. R. (2004). Teaching MBA statistics online: A pedagogically sound process approach. Journal of Education for Business, 79, 237-44.

5. Jones, L. V. (2003). Teaching statistics online. Online Classroom, March 2003, p. 4, 8.

6. Prater, D. L., & MacNeil, A. J. (2002). The use of collaborative groups in traditional and online courses. Computers in the Schools, 19, 67-75.

7. Suanpang, P., Petocz, P., & Kalceff, W. (2004). Student attitudes to learning business statistics: Comparison of online and traditional methods. Educational Technology & Society, 7, 9-20.


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