Promoting questioning skills by biology undergraduates: The role of assessment and feedback in an online discussion forum

Helena Pedrosa-de-Jesus, Aurora Coelho Moreira


There is strong evidence from the literature that the development of questioning by students can have very positive effects on learning. This study has its focus on an online discussion forum (ODF), “Questions in Biology”, designed for the development of questioning skills and deep learning about Evolution. This strategy was also used as an alternative mode of students’ assessment. The ODF was used with 70 undergraduates from Biology/Geology courses at the University of Aveiro, Portugal, during the second semester of 2008/2009. Our aim was to explore student questioning and learning development as well as the role played by assessment and teacher feedback in these processes.

Data collected included all the student and teacher transcripts from the discussion forum and interviews with ten selected students and the teacher. All the transcripts were subjected to content analysis. Students’ posts were categorised against the Acquisition-Specialization-Integration questioning categories, developed by Pedrosa-de-Jesus and colleagues (2004, 2006) and the ‘cognitive presence’ in one of the four phases of the ‘practical inquiry model’: 1) triggering event; 2) exploration; 3) integration, and 4) resolution. The teacher’s posts were analysed according to the ‘teaching presence’: 1) design and organization, 2) facilitation and 3) direct instruction.

Data analysis showed important relationships between student questioning and cognitive presence that indicates the development of student questioning in association with higher-order learning. Teaching presence was shown to be effective, and the feedback provided by the teacher essential for attaining those fundamental goals. Very positive opinions by the students and the teacher confirmed the importance of formative assessment and the role of assessment aligned to teaching, learning and the desired outcomes.

We believe that “Questions in Biology” represents a good example of formative assessment and a positive contribution for the adoption of teaching, learning and assessment practices in Higher Education envisaging higher-level learning.

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Editor-in-Chief: Prof Norbert Pachler
UCL Institute of Education, University College London
ISSN 1746-9082