Improving Critical Thinking Through Online Discussion

A Graduate Professor at Grand Valley State University uses Packback to prepare students for their careers.

In the Department of Occupational Science & Therapy at Grand Valley State University, students walked into the first day of class excited to learn. It’s the start of their 3-year journey of classroom instruction and clinicals to prepare for the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy exam. But their instructor, Dr. Jennifer Summers, walked into the classroom with a bigger goal – to teach the importance of critical thinking and this semester she used Packback to help.

“When I see my students in front of me, I think of their future clients,” says Dr. Summers. “These are graduate students who are going to enter our profession. We train them to think in a way that is all-encompassing so they’re able to see the bigger picture. We give them knowledge, but critical thinking with transformable learning is our main objective.”

Dr. Summers started teaching in 2015 and has year-round teaching responsibilities while working on tenure. As a registered and licensed OT, Dr. Summers knows the importance of her students’ ability to quickly analyze information and draw conclusions to be successful in the field. “If I just train them to think a skill, they’re going to miss huge pieces of people’s lives,” says Dr. Summers. However, this teaching approach is often challenging for students who are accustomed to large lecture halls and standardized testing.

In-class, Dr. Summers lays the foundation for students in a familiar way and keeps lectures interesting with videos and surveys. In order to build her students’ critical thinking skills, Dr. Summers focuses on student-driven discussions. These out-of-class conversations help students make connections to their lives and see the power of critical thinking, but Dr. Summers learned that facilitating student conversations can be overwhelming.

After working with LMS discussion boards for years, Summers was frustrated. No matter how much time she spent moderating discussions, the space was unorganized and hard to track. “I can’t tell who is doing what. It’s chaos,” says Dr. Summers. “I can’t follow anything. They can’t follow anything.” She even tried splitting the students into groups of three to five students, which helped the chaos but students lost a sense of community. “Sometimes, [the students] come up with these really great, thought-provoking questions or comments or insights, but only their small group saw it,” says Dr. Summers.

Looking for a way to include all students in one conversation, Dr. Summers implemented Packback into her 2017 Fall Theoretical Foundations of Occupational Therapy course. Her unique community had 20 graduate-level students and she required them to ask one question and respond to two each week. In comparison to other online discussion boards, Dr. Summers says she was surprised to find a spike in the quality of conversation among her students on Packback.

“What I noticed [was] they talked about the theoretical constructs and directly related it to their lives, which I didn’t expect them to do,” says Dr. Summers. “I probably wouldn’t have asked prompts the way they did [and] I actually feel like it’s more of a rich discussion because I did not facilitate the prompt.”

Dr. Summers realized Packback’s impact while teaching cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques. While browsing the week’s posts, Dr. Summers came across one student’s question that applied techniques from class to the management of personal anxieties. The student’s question was met with an outflow of supportive responses from classmates who explored similar concepts in application to their own anxieties and stress.

“This is what we know really helps people integrate material, is to have a concrete example in their life,” says Dr. Summers. “Most people said, ‘this is how I am thinking [this concept] applies to myself or to my loved ones’ or, ‘I saw this when I was shadowing an occupational therapist and now I understand why they are doing this’, and they were really able to take the theory to the application.”

It wasn’t just Dr. Summers who saw a benefit in using Packback. Nada Metti, a graduate student in Dr. Summers’ course, says Packback became a creative way to for her to explore class materials and better understand theories. Unlike Metti’s prior experience with online discussion boards where students summarized notes and lectures, classmates on Packback were discussing concepts in an interesting and engaging way.

“I’ve discussed Packback with a few classmates and we didn’t realize how much we appreciated Packback until this semester where a lot of our other professors use the typical discussion boards,” says Metti. Packback inspired in-depth conversations where students could share personal experiences, provide feedback, practice devising treatment plans and thinking as an occupational therapist.

“Packback allows us to be more creative in the way we ask questions and I think that’s how we have to be in general,” says Metti. “We need to be curious individuals, in our field especially. [Occupational therapy] is very versatile. We have to be more flexible in the way we think and the way we propose ideas.”

Metti and her peers shared this positive feedback with Dr. Summers and are excited to use Packback for another term. Dr. Summers says she never doubted her students’ ability to critically think and apply theories but explains Packback helped to build and nurture these skills through curious questions.

“To be honest, I’ve [been] impressed with the caliber of students we had, but Packback made it more obvious to me,” says Dr. Summers. “ I feel like they did a better job with asking each other hard questions then I would have done with posting the prompts. That’s why I like Packback, cause it’s really supporting our critical thinking process.”