Learning Outcomes: Synchronous Sessions vs. Discussion Boards

DB vs SynchLast semester, I blogged weekly reflections about teaching online, and mostly I discussed changing discussion board topics and conducting synchronous sessions. At the semester’s close, I summarized my thoughts on discussion boards and synchronous sessions.

This semester’s focus is a little different since I can now compare my current teaching to last year’s teaching. Weekly collaboration sessions with the other 8th grade teacher have also expanded my perspective. During weekly meetings, we identify ways to improve the discussion board topics (we’ve changed them all) and plan synchronous sessions. We’d like to think our interventions help students grasp the material better, and the following example shows promising results.

Phrases and Clauses: An Overview

The 8th grade Language Arts curriculum teaches grammar in isolated topics within larger themes. The unit on sentence structure focuses on phrases and clauses. The Common Core ELA Language Standards are

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.8.1 Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.8.1.A Explain the function of verbals (gerunds, participles, infinitives) in general and their function in particular sentences.

The increasing complexity of the Common Core standards makes 8th grade the grade when students should master verbals. For the teacher, this means reviewing types of clauses (independent vs. dependent), prepositional phrases, appositives, and then adding gerund phrases, participial phrases, and infinitive phrases. If you’re lost already, you’re in good company with many 8th graders. Even when I taught in the classroom before the Common Core, 8th graders struggled with identifying and writing these phrases. Fewer students begin to understand their value.

The GAVS course contains six pages of content and practice on sentence structure, phrases, and clauses. The discussion board topic offers formative assessment before students take the sentence structure test. The majority of the test questions focus on identifying phrases and clauses. Although there are links and practice worksheets for students, they often need additional support to master this content.

Last year’s interventions

phrases formLast spring, I tackled phrases and clauses during a synchronous session and offered practice using a  Google Form. The synchronous session included mini-lessons with distributive practice to teach sentence structure, phrases, and clauses. The Google Form focused only on phrases and clauses. When students submitted their answers from the form, I was able to offer additional help and have them view their feedback.

Original Discussion Board Topic

phrases db original
The discussion board topic has good intentions. Ideally, students post sample problems/sentences and others post replies to identify the phrases and clauses.

Unfortunately, there are several problems:

Students who don’t understand phrases and clauses struggle writing clear examples.

phrase db error 4

Students’ replies are vague.

phrase db error 1


Students’ replies are incorrect.

phrase db error 2

Students’ replies completely miss the point.

phrase db error 3

I don’t blame students for any of these errors, and sometimes, there is a shining example:

db shining example 1

To ensure students aren’t reinforcing incorrect information, the teacher must constantly monitor the discussion board to correct errors, and the effectiveness of this strategy depends on students reading replies. Many don’t.

phrase db correction 2

This year’s interventions

We scraped the synchronous session, added a practice test, and focused on the discussion board topic. Only two students completed my practice test, so the most influential intervention, I can assume, was modifying the discussion board topic.

As written, there was limited guidance on what phrases and clauses students should write, which labels to apply, and there was no example to scaffold the information.

So, how could we create a topic where students could show mastery of the content and have exposure to many examples of correct information?

Last semester, I used a PowerPoint presentation to help students with figurative language and sound devices: students chose a term, researched it, and created a presentation with a definition and an example. For this phrases and clauses, however, students needed to practice all of the phrases and clauses and show mastery of each. So, here’s what we did:

educon empathy 4

By using an editable PowerPoint, students must view their peer’s work before adding their own slide. This increases the number of examples they see and reinforces correct information. Also, by marking the mistakes, we can show students what errors to avoid.

Then for the actual post, we gave students a choice to either share a resource or reflect on the experience.

phrases db revised

Here’s some of the responses:

  • I found this exercise extremely helpful! I was able to be creative, while still recognizing the sentence structure conventions. I was able to see clearly what each convention is called, and exactly how to recognize it. Also, I found it easy to navigate the website, but found it challenging to fit all my ideas onto one slide while still showing my creative side. I really enjoyed _________’s slide. I like how she stuck to one topic, and made it her theme of her slide. It was really interesting to read her examples, and she included great images that related well to her theme. Overall, I’d say this assignment was helpful due to the fact that I was able to be created and still express my interest in ELA.
  • https://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/gram_clauses_n_phrases.html This website was a very helpful tool in learning about phrases and clauses. This website gives you many examples, and a very descriptive definition for each phrase and/or clause. this website helped me to understand what we are learning a little more than I already was.
  • Great link. I liked how the websites colors made the topic more interesting!
  • This exercise was mildly helpful because it made me review the types of phrases. Writing my own sentences was not helpful because I already knew everything that I had to write. As well as it being rather easy to complete. I like _______’s slide the most because of how easy it is to read and understand.

Measuring the effectiveness

Although the PowerPoint slides are pretty to look at and the actual posts and replies improved in quality, this means nothing if the intervention doesn’t actually improve their understanding as assessed by the Sentence Structure test.phrases db averages

To measure, I pulled the scores from last year and this year to compare. Last year I had 23 students; this year, there are 36 students. Of those 36, two students did not submit answers with their quiz, so their scores are 0. When I remove those scores from the data set, the average improves significantly.

phrases db data

Not only did the averages rise, but the entire set of scores rose. Comparing the first quartiles of the box and whisker diagram shows approximately a 5 percent increase.


While this information isn’t at all statically significant, it does suggest that discussion boards can be used to instruct and reinforce content. Teachers should not overlook or underestimate the instructional value of discussion boards as they can lead to increased learning outcomes.

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