Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Early message board posters and success in an online writing class

I did a little analysis that showed that students who post earlier on message boards toward the end of the term tend to be the students who do better in the class grade-wise.

For this analysis, I used my recent 10-week online composition course, which focused on argument. There were 20 students in the class, and the final number of message board posts in the class was 1,619. I posted 345 of those messages, and the students posted 1,274 posts (about 64 posts per student).

I was curious to see if I could discover any correlation between posting early and overall success in the course. I looked at the first poster for each message board thread on which we talked about course readings or materials (thus leaving out threads on which students posted drafts of their essays or signed up for conferences or things like that). In a sense, these were the “conversations” of the course (my message board guidelines can be found on an earlier blog entry here).

We had 34 such threads in this 10-week course. First I noted, by grade, how many times each type of student posted first on these 34 threads:
A students=12 times
B students=12 times
C students=7 times
D students=3 times

More interestingly, I calculated the average final grade of the first posters on these 34 threads vs. the overall average grade in the course (to do this, I used the simple 4-point scale, with A=4, B=3, C=2, and D=1):

  • Average grade of whole class: 2.85 (yes, I know, I appear to be another professor who has succumbed to grade inflation, but I’ll weakly defend myself by saying that this was a smart group)
  • Average grade of first posters on all 34 threads: 2.99

While the first posters have a slightly higher average grade than that of the whole class, it is not that significant (0.14 points).

However, I wondered if students who did not procrastinate toward the end of the course, when things got tough, tended to be better students:

  • Average grade of first posters in the last four weeks (16 threads): 3.19

Indeed, the difference between the average grade of the whole class and those who posted first in the last four weeks is much larger: 0.34 points.

One might deduce that the better students in the class don’t run out of steam at the end of the course. In fact, no student who received a D or lower in the class was a first poster in those final four weeks, although such students had posted first several times in the first six weeks of the course.

Obviously, because this is only one class, we can’t make too much of this. Nor would we want to get caught up in faulty cause-and-effect. For instance, do they simply post first because they’re better students (I don’t know what students’ overall GPAs were)? Surely, students who post early could be the more dedicated, driven, and organized. But, on the message board, early posters also have the added advantage of being in on many of the conversations in the class from the ground level; in fact, they actually might have a bigger hand in developing the knowledge of the course.

The idea that students who post early might have better success in the course is interesting. If we knew that posting earlier helped students become more engaged, then we could encourage students who seem to be floundering to be more aggressive in their posting behaviors, getting in earlier so that when they open up the course message board they’re not faced with over one hundred unread posts (keep in mind there were an average of 160 posts per week in my course).

Perhaps posting early not only helps students feel they have a better handle on the sometimes massive amount of information in an online class, but it shows that they’re more attune to the structure and scheduling of the course.