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Study: Having an online social forum for class networking gives physics students a boost

Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis School of Science

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Credit: School of Science at IUPUI

INDIANAPOLIS -- Grasping the impulse-momentum theorem during a 100-level physics lecture is one thing, but what if it doesn't make as much sense once you start your homework assignment?

Andy Gavrin, IUPUI physics department chair and associate professor, first added an online social forum to his courses to help students stay engaged in the coursework and assist one another outside of class. A new study of these forums indicates the online tool is valuable to helping students succeed in physics courses.

"Networks identify productive forum discussions" is published online this month in the journal Physical Review Physics Education Research, a publication of the American Physical Society.

Gavrin is studying the forums in collaboration with Adrienne Traxler of Wright State University and Rebecca Lindell of Tiliadal STEM Education Solutions. They found that when the online forum showed denser collaboration networks, the students who were most central in the network were more likely to achieve a higher final course grade.

"This project is about how students interact with one another," Gavrin said. "Learning is very much a social activity, and you see that with students getting together to study and in classroom discussions. The more opportunities students have to interact with one another to talk about the subject, the more successful they are likely to be in learning."

Researchers analyzed data from three consecutive fall semester courses Gavrin taught of Physics 152, a calculus-based physics and engineering course. Gavrin used CourseNetworking, an online forum developed at IUPUI, that allows students to discuss course materials, connect with each other and offer mutual support. Participation in the forum, which has similar features and setup as other social networks, was not graded, but students could earn extra credit. Each semester, 160 to 180 students were enrolled in the class, producing thousands of forum comments, responses to comments, polls and response ratings.

The students' interactions were transformed to an anonymous data set that was analyzed two ways: PageRank, the tool developed by Google to determine what data is most central, and target entropy, which measures the variety in the links among individuals. If a person interacts with a lot of other people in a social network, it indicates they are likely central. If the people they interact with are central themselves, that reflects back on the first person.

"What we are finding is a clear correlation between students' centrality in the network and their success in class," Gavrin said. "That really shows there is some connection between being involved in the network and doing well."

While researchers aren't ready to say involvement in the social network causes improved grades, the understanding of how the two are linked will feed into future projects aimed at understanding what students are saying and how their use of the forum makes them central. Additionally, the research indicates that instructor facilitation in the forums matters.

In two of the three semesters, Gavrin used the online forum as the primary tool to distribute handouts, lab worksheets and other class materials. He also engaged students with a weekly "professor comment" area where he would share interesting physics news and what was coming up in class. In the semester when Gavrin used the forum only sporadically to remind the class about upcoming exams, the forum was less dense. It also lost the connection between central students -- those most involved in the network -- and higher course grades.

While it may seem the central students are simply the high-achieving students and that the forum would not improve their success, the lack of correlation between centrality and higher grades in the semester with less involvement from Gavrin suggests that argument is incomplete.

In future projects, Gavrin hopes to gain an even better understanding of how students work together and what physics educators can do to enrich that process.

"We want to understand the educational setting in a way that will allow us to improve it, so we can develop new tools that will help students be more successful in class, understand physics and other coursework better, and ultimate be more successful in college," Gavrin added.

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About the School of Science at IUPUI

The School of Science at IUPUI is committed to excellence in teaching, research and service in the biological, physical, computational, behavioral and mathematical sciences. The school is dedicated to being a leading resource for interdisciplinary research and science education in support of Indiana's effort to expand and diversify its economy.

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