Talk It Out: Discussion Boards Could Help Students See Through Muddy Scientific Concepts

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You may have heard or used the phrase “as clear as mud.” This idiom is often used—sometimes in a deadpan way to convey humor—to mean that the topic you’re discussing isn’t clear at all. If you’re talking to someone one-on-one, it’s easy to ask questions about what you don’t understand. But when you’re in a large-group environment, getting the clarification you need can sometimes be more difficult. Educator-researchers will be talking about how to clear up difficult physiology concepts—what they call the “muddiest points”—in upper-level science classes this week during the American Physiological Society’s Institute on Teaching and Learning (ITL).

Large classes can be challenging for both educators and students. It may be hard for students to engage in group discussions or grasp all the concepts being taught when there’s little time for questions or individualized attention. Teachers may have a similarly tough time when high enrollment makes it difficult to know what students don’t understand.

Professors who taught a pathophysiology course at The Ohio State University experimented with using an online discussion board to help identify the topics that were hardest for the students to comprehend. Each of the roughly 250 students in the class was required to post a question on the board every week about what they didn’t understand. The faculty then used the discussion board responses to gather three to five muddiest points each week, which came from the most commonly asked questions. In the next week’s lecture, the educators took about 20 minutes to review the previous week’s muddiest points. Many of the students reported that the discussion board helped them in their overall understanding of the course materials.

Amy Mackos, PhD, talks about using a discussion board to clarify difficult concepts.

In a world where learning may be in person, online or somewhere in between, discussion boards may become a common tool to help students engage with their professors and each other and improve understanding of physiology concepts.

Educator-researchers at ITL also discussed:

Erica Roth


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