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Supporting students through tutor group forums

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Edited by Patrick Andrews, Thursday, 20 Mar 2014, 16:04

I have been thinking about the roles of the tutor group forums in supporting learners and this seems to be particularly relevant on L185 where learners face more challenging texts for TMA 4 than they had been exposed to before.

It seems to me that the following could help to scaffold them:

- encouraging top down reading strategies

- asking questions

- encouraging learners to use the "collective intelligence* of the group.

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Those are interesting ideas but unfortunately many tutor group forums are totally deserted. This doesn't leave much space for sharing ideas or understanding the materials through the collective intelligence.

It would be nice if they were really used as a learning tool.


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Thanks for the comment and for engaging with the topic, Maria.

I try to encourage students to post but it is not always possible - there is only so much that a tutor can do.  However, many of my students this year have engaged with the forums and I think that TMA 4 of L185 is very important but more challenging than previous ones.  I would love students to scaffold each other on the forums.

What do you think tutors can do to help encourage more (and better, more supportive) postings?  I would be very interested in your perspective.


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You are very welcome Patrick.

I am very interested in this topic because I am currently doing L185 myself and my tutor group forum has not been used at all since the beginning of the module. This is also the case for my other module, L140. I have tried a few times to post something but I have had no response.

I personally believe that the learning experience could be greatly enhanced by the use of our tutor group forums, therefore I find it very nice that you try to encourage your students to post, especially close to an important TMA. I would suppose that you are doing it by using the forum yourself. This is, for example, the first step that a tutor can take to encourage its use, but it's not always taken.

Sending emails that invite students to go to the forum for further discussions, explanations and extra activities could be another way of keeping it active. Even if not all the students will be present, I am sure that each group has a few willing ones that are able to make time for some meaningful exchange.

Posts that invite the students to share their doubts or the points they are finding difficult to understand can break the ice and encourage the shy ones to share their feelings/progress.

Does this help in any way?

I am only a newbie after all, so I may not have enough experience for a more articulated answer. However, this has been my experience so far.

I wish students were able to participate in other group forums though.


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Thanks, Maria.

i think your comments are very useful.  It is difficult to maintain momentum and I keep working on ways of trying to do this. I think that the affective (ie emotional) aspect is important and I think your suggestion is useful about encouraging students to support each other.

i think we as tutors have a bit if a selling role trying to encourage learners to see the value of the forum.  I try to ask them to think what they are learning from the activity and I try to refer to tutor group forums in my assignment feedback.

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I think that it's true what you say about tutors having a little bit of a selling role when it comes to encourage learners to use the forums. I seem to understand that not many students are used to these kind of online tools, which often can be perceived as something similar to the more famous/infamous social networks.

I noticed some diffidence even towards the use of the personal blogs. I have read that many use the blogs only because it is within the protected space of the OU and that they would never blog "outside". 

Could it be that there is not enough information about them? Could it be that somehow students are not getting the message that it is a safe space with the opportunity for sharing and understanding better what they are studying?

From what you say it seems like you are doing all the right things that a good tutor should/could do. Well done! big grin

Maybe tutors and students should be grouped in a different way for online only modules. wink

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And by the way...it's nice to see a tutor here sharing as well wink

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Thanks for continuing the dialogue, Maria.

It is interesting how different groups work differently even on the same course.  I have two L185 groups and they are interacting in different ways.

You mention the "infamous social network"smile and that is interesting.  I wonder if that should be considered like a cafe where students can talk in a free way without needing to be in an academic frame of mind.  I would see the tutor group forum as being more like the classroom so I would expect a different kind of interaction.

I think "the selling" might consist of the teacher asking the students what they think they have gained from each activity.  I think there are often useful responses to this question and I hope that what they have learned can be carried through to their assignments and future work on other courses.

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Again, you are very welcome.

I agree with you in seeing the tutor group forums as a classroom and this is how it should be in my opinion, however I do wonder if this is what might put some people off. wink

Asking students what they feel/think they have gained from activities is a good approach as it keeps them grounded so to speak; it keeps them in touch with the reasons for studying. When a student feels they are just working to tick boxes to comply with an upcoming TMA, they might lose interest.

This conversation has been very interesting indeed and it has given me an idea. What about moving it to your group forums? Have you done/consider it?

It could be nice if those forums where also used to gather information, feedbacks and opinions on the module/learning experience of the students.

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Thanks again for your engagement, Maria.

I think you make a good point in a way when you suggest talking about this more to the students.  I am not sure that it would be a good idea to move the postings to the tutor group forum but I will tell my students about this posting and invite them to look.


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Hi Patrick

As someone who has participated in forum activities regularly up until the past few weeks I can see the benefits of participating. However my circumstances have changed significantly - the joys of juggling freelance work and family - and to enable me to complete the TMAs I've had to drastically alter my study schedule for the remaining year on both modules.

I'm making a broad assumption, but I do think at this stage some people may have fallen significantly behind with activities, perhaps in some cases a 'snowball effect' and don't feel they are able to participate in activities where the current block's work is being discussed and are too busy trying to complete the TMAs on time. Perhaps others are also experiencing similar changes in circumstances, making the completion of activities and forum participation very difficult.

I am also a member of the Facebook group, which has also quietened down significantly I suspect for similar reasons. However as it's less formal I think people do enjoy posting on there as they can often discuss things off-topic and in a more casual manner, regardless of their level of progress through the course materials. The group also has a larger base, made up of students with different tutors so for this reason alone there is more participation purely because there are more people than in an average tutor group. It really has been great to engage with other students and have the support and encouragement that is sometimes needed from fellow students when you are struggling.

Perhaps if participation was encouraged through discussion not directly linked to block activities - therefore not discouraging those who are behind - that may boost response and help people practise certain techniques. For example, allow people to develop critical discussion techniques together by asking about the pros and cons of online shopping and its effect on the retail industry as a whole (sorry, couldn't think of a better example!).

Is it possible to amalgamate tutor groups to enable students from both your groups to converse together, or those with other tutors to have a shared forum? That could significantly impact those who use the forums regularly, increasing the chances of getting feedback and generating more discussion.

As someone who has never made it to an online session, I have to point out that the recorded sessions from many tutors have been of great use and I enjoy listening to them when I can even though I'm not actually participating 'live'! The podcasts are also a great idea and give an extra level of support and clarity, so thankyou Patrick for taking the time to record these for us.


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Thanks for your comments, Louise.  I find your thoughts very interesting.

Do you think the Facebook and the tutor group forum should have different roles?  The Facebook group could be more unstructured and is perhaps like a cafe in a face to face university whereas the tutor group is more like a classroom.  The Facebook group can allow students to say almost what they like without a tutor there and I assume that much of the communication is not very relevant to the course.  In contrast, the tutor monitors and often comments in the tutor group forum and probably tries to maintain a serious but friendly ethos.

I think your idea of amalgamating tutor groups is an interesting idea and I can see advantages and also some drawbacks.  The advantage would be that there is a larger group of people to work with and this is an advantage when there is not so much going on.  However, groups can be too big and I remember how much students seemed to enjoy the definitions task when they worked in small groups.  Ideally, it seems that a group of about 4 working quite closely and posting messages daily or near daily is most fruitful.

I can also see your point about students working at different paces and that there is perhaps a need for more general issues to be discussed.  The problem is that this would add to the student workload and might not seem closely related to the needs people have.  I wonder whether asking students to discuss what they have learned from each block and TMA would be useful.


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Hi Patrick,

I have enjoyed the tutor group activities and discussions on this course, but unfortunately have fell a little behind on this block due to a few personal issues. However I am working hard to be firmly back on track for the start of the next block.

Our tutor group forum is a very positive and supportive group with a lot of active learners taking part. I believe the reason for this is that you, as a tutor, play a very active role in encouraging everyone to participate and interact. You regularly reach out to us, whilst taking the time to give every one of us positive feedback and pause for thought. As all thoughts and ideas are welcomed positively in our group more students are taking part. This has certainly made the experience less daunting.

As a result, rather than suffering in silence everyone is comfortable asking questions that they may not usually have the confidence to ask and this is greatly benefiting us all in the group. I think fear of looking foolish prevents a lot of students from posting on forums and failing to get a response prevents students from continuing to post moving forward.

I also think that icebreaking activities and separate discussions go a long way in getting the ball rolling.




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Thanks, Louise for these interesting comments.

You refer to a supportive atmosphere and I suspect this is very important.  It is interesting that you refer to the ice breaker.  I wonder if we should have a little group activity at the beginning of each block that is not related directly to the materials - I will perhaps try it for the next block. This perhaps relates to what Louise Spragg says above.

There are inevitably personal and work commitments that come up.  As a tutor, I need to recognise this and not feel that students are not posting for many reasons and that this does not necessarily mean they are not engaged and committed to the course. .

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Yes I think Facebook has a different role to the tutor group forum, but useful in its own way particularly in adding the social element which is missing in a distance course.

I think if it was stressed that participation in general issues is optional but the purpose of the post was explained - such as I mentioned before, it may be there to practise critical discussion or another aspect of academic English that has been covered within the course, then it may encourage more people to participate without pressure. Discussion on each block and TMA would be useful, perhaps highlighting and addressing any struggles students may have had and may in turn lead to deeper discussion about methods practised.

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Thanks, again, Louise for your engagement in the issues.  Do you mean that it would be good to have more discussion based around issues that are more general than the specific tasks in the materials?


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Hi Patrick

In a nutshell, yes, general discussion may work well alongside set topics big grin

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Thanks again, Louise.  I will try to experiment with this in the next Block.  Something I am quite keen to emphasise is that the work builds on what has gone before.  So we can perhaps look at what you had gained from in doing the previous assignment and how that can help with the next one.