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Editor’s Note
: This study uses a hybrid face-to-face and online model where WebCT tools are used to expand opportunities for interaction. It provides an interesting contrast to the previous study.

Supplementing WebCT Tools into
Developmental Studies Instruction

Melissa L. Burgess
United States


The purpose of this research was to explore what would happen to developmental students’ comprehension and motivation in reading when the online learning community, WebCT was supplemented. My role, in addition to instructor, was that of participant-observer. Over a four-month period, I supplemented WebCT tools such as discussion board and chat into my instruction to enhance comprehension and motivation to read in my Developmental Studies in Reading II classroom. Using both qualitative and quantitative research methods, my findings indicate that there were improvements in both motivation and comprehension by using these online tools. By incorporating this technology into the developmental studies curriculum, we as developmental educators will be encouraging and supporting our students’ needs to become independent thinkers and learners.

Literature Review

At the beginning of my literature research, I was under the false assumption that there would not be enough literature or research to support my focus question. It is commonly agreed among scholars that research in new literacies has not caught up with the technological advances that exist today. Although there is an abundance of recent research addressing online learning, there are a handful of resources that discussed a possible connection between online learning program tools such as discussion board and chat and increased student motivation and comprehension. In the last few years much research has been conducted in the area of online learning, and issues have been discussed concerning the benefits for students and future direction of online learning at many conferences around the world. Educators are asking probing questions on how to effectively incorporate technology into their classrooms. The developmental studies classroom is no different. NADE (National Association for Developmental Education) provides a current definition of developmental education, a field that has dramatically changed over the last ten years:

Developmental education is a field of practice and research within higher education with a theoretical foundation in developmental psychology and learning theory. It promotes the cognitive and affective growth of all postsecondary learners, at all levels of the learning continuum. Developmental education is sensitive and responsive to individual differences and special needs among learners. Developmental education programs and services commonly address academic preparedness, diagnostic assessment and placement, development of general and discipline-specific learning strategies, and affective barriers to learning.
 (NADE website, 2001)

For developmental studies students, critical and analytical reading is a challenge. Motivation and attitudes are common underlying issues they face as learners and thus, issues we face as instructors.

Uncharted Territory?                                               

Perusing through mounds of research articles and literature, it was surprising that there was little research that specifically addressed my focus question:

What happens to student’s comprehension skills when WebCT technology is implemented--specifically, discussion board and chat tools?

The possibility that my focus question had not been explored made my curiosity pique even higher and my determination to conduct this research even stronger. Developmental education as a field of study sits at a turning point, dependent upon the use of modern technology to assist reading comprehension in students. My hope is that this research will encourage instructors to experiment with available technologies and remain open to new learning tools. This type of learning “may provide ways for educators to reach students before they fail. It may provide a way to bring instruction to the student, when and where learning is happening” (Caverly & MacDonald, 2000, p. 39).

Characteristics of the Developmental Studies Classroom and its Students

For many years, the developmental studies classroom has been “dominated by the ancient paradigm typified by the lecture method” (Brothen, 1998, p. 53). As a developmental study in reading education, I feel the need to break from this lecture/presentation mold so that my students are able to become independent, self-regulated learners. Students who have been tested into a developmental studies in reading course often lack motivation, independent learning skills, effective strategies for learning, reading comprehension and analytical thinking skills. Not only are they not prepared for the rigors of college courses, they are also ill-prepared for other life challenges that require skills in reading. Currently, there are estimates that “40% of first-time students entering the average community colleges are underprepared for college-level work” (National Center for Educational Statistics, 1996). Figure 3. shows the demographics of developmental studies students:

Student Demographics







Average Age















American Indian  





Income less than $20,000  


(National Center for Educational Statistics, 1996)

Figure 1. Demographic Characteristics of
Community College Developmental Studies Students

It is evident from this figure that poverty is a significant characteristic and research has shown “a strong correlation with poverty and academic under preparedness” (Lavin & Hyllegard, 1996; McCabe & Day, 1998). Even though Whites comprise most of the incoming freshman taking developmental studies courses, African-Americans and Hispanics are the fastest growing populations that also need these courses.

Only by understanding and communicating the advantages of online learning can communities potentially change this pattern of under preparedness.

Tool Descriptions & Hybrid Online Model

In order to lay the foundation for the desired results of this research, it was necessary to design my syllabus incorporating both WebCT discussion board and chat sessions throughout much of the semester in addition to regularly-held traditional classes. The course was taught using a hybrid online model. This model illustrates the learner-centered nature of a hybrid class and serves as a solid foundation for introducing developmental students to online learning. The hybrid model gives flexibility with classes, allows instructors to accomplish course objectives successfully, and increases interaction and contact among students (Garnham & Kaleta, 2003). My department is currently laying the groundwork for this format of learning and through my research and findings will proceed appropriately with its future implementation. See Figure 2. below to view the dynamic nature of faculty-student interaction as well as student-student interaction. The Hybrid Course Project (2001), conducted by faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, is an ongoing research project highlighting the benefits of hybrid models:

Our faculty participants almost universally believe their students learned more in the hybrid format than they did in the traditional class sections. Instructors reported that students wrote better papers, performed better on exams, produced higher quality projects, and were capable of more meaningful discussions on course material. (Garnham & Kaleta, 2003)


Figure 2. The hybrid online model

The discussion board tool is an asynchronous (not real time) tool which allows students to answer or post content-oriented questions. The chat tool on WebCT is delivered synchronously (in real time) where students and teacher can discuss, converse and share ideas.

I decided to use the backward design approach to create and develop my instruction. The backward design approach operates under the condition that “curriculum should lay out the most effective ways of achieving specific results” (Wiggins, 2005, p. 14). By following the backward design approach, I was able to design my course with the end result in mind: having my students motivated to read and having all or most of my students being able to understand what they read.

Designs, management and strategies in synchronous and asynchronous learning are good indicators of online learning success (Tu, 2003). While chat sessions created a means for electronic communication (Martyn, 2003), the quality of chat interaction depends heavily upon the instructional delivery (Roberson, 2001). By acting as a discussion facilitator instead of deliverer, students were able to engage in inductive reasoning and understanding. Keeping chat sessions small in size (four to five students) was also beneficial with this mode of communication.

Advantages of Chat and Discussion Board Tools

Discussion Board. Discussion board provided a communicative forum where students could work collaboratively and share thoughts and ideas. In traditional classrooms, time constraints and divided attentions sometimes prohibit in-depth discussions. By using the discussion board tool, students benefit in many ways: a). “think time” before responding, b). the opportunity to respond thoughtfully without interruptions, c). opportunities to read other classmates’ responses and think about them before responding, d). opportunities to converse with fellow classmates without limits (Lindsey-North, 2000, p. 4). Students have the ability to think and reflect on what they post to the discussion board therefore increasing the quality of discussion.

Chat. There were advantages to chat sessions as well. According to Almeida d’Eca (2003), there are different types of interactions evident in chat sessions: a). student-to-student (generates sharing of personal experiences, viewpoints, etc., b). student-to-teacher (allows for individual or group help), c). student-to-online-resource (encourages timely analysis and discussion of materials online) (d’Eca, 2003). Other advantages included exercising communication skills and etiquette, expressing ideas and receiving immediate feedback, developing personal (independence and autonomy) and interpersonal skills (helping, listening, discussing, debating, suggesting), and time management skills (arriving to session on time). Both discussion board and chat encouraged students who are were typically shy in the traditional classroom to actively participate.

Disadvantages of Chat and Discussion Board Tools

As with any rose, there are thorns. Some issues that have been documented include: (1) difficulty of synchronizing chat times with busy schedules, (2) competing for Internet access at home, (3) previous experience with computers, (4) computer glitches (i.e., DSL, dial-up) and (5) cost (as more institutions use hybrid courses, there will be pressure to develop more computer labs) (d’Eca, 2003).

Underpinning Theories and Principles

Self-efficacy & intrinsic motivation. By putting developmental students in the driver’s seat to steer their own learning abilities, educators can foster feelings of self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is defined as “the belief that one is capable of executing behavior or performing tasks successfully”(Ormrod, 2004, p. 456). Many developmental students come to the classroom lacking the self-efficacy to succeed in reading. Having self-efficacy, in turn, influences intrinsic motivation—motivation that “lies within the individual and task…” (Ormrod, 2004). Increasing intrinsic motivation is a critical component for developmental reading students in gaining the self-regulation, independence and self-direction that has been lacking in their academic career (Brothen, 1998).

Social Constructivism. Another underpinning theory for this research is the social nature of learning, or social constructivism. With roots in the work of Lev Vygotsky and Jean Piaget, constructivism can be best described as a “poststructuralist theory that regards learning as an interpretive, recursive, building process by active learners interacting with the physical and social world” (Wulff, Hanor and Bulik, 2000). Catherine Twomey Fosnot (1996) offers a clear understanding on the origins of social learning and outlines the five key tenets of social constructivism and Web-based pedagogy in Constructivism: Theory, Perspectives, and Practice:

1.    Learning is development. Learning and development are synonymous in that development does not determine the depth and breadth of learning. Learners must be self-directed in structuring and managing these actions. Regarding design and implementation of Web-based pedagogy, educators must integrate learning experiences that cultivate social presence and engage or motivate psychological presence with the content and actions of learning.

2.    Disequilibrium facilitates learning. For Web-based pedagogy to be effective, educators need to factor “role, balance, and presence of disequilibrium. Suggestions for achieving this include creating opportunities for the online group to take the time to respect mistakes and “honor frustrations” through display and interaction.

3.    Dialogue within a community engenders further thinking. This is initiated by redistributing learning control and power by supporting synchronous and asynchronous tools to cultivate social presence.

4.    Reflective abstraction is the driving force of learning. Expressing reflection evokes a presence of self. This, in turn, deepens the construction of knowledge prompted by learning experiences.

5.    Learning proceeds toward the development of structures. Students engaged in the process of learning build, shape, and reshape learning experiences into patterns of meaning and arrangements of knowledge (Fosnot, 1996).

This Vygotskian perspective also asserts that meaning is made by transferring inner speech to outer speech (Lee, 2005). When students offer their ideas and thoughts on the discussion board or chat, they are making this transformation and encouraging this social interaction.

Motivation(personal and situational). Motivation, even at the postsecondary level, needed to be considered and included in my research in two distinctive ways. Research indicates a strong correlation between motivation and technology and how students benefit from this learner-centered approach. It is strongly suggested by theorists that teachers take advantage of students’ personal and situational interests in the classroom (Alexander et al., 1994). By concentrating on a personal interest (social aspect of technology, i.e., chat & discussion board)—interest in a “particular topic or activity” (Ormrod, 2004), motivation can be initiated. By providing a situational interest (i.e., WebCT online learning community), students can thrive in an environment where they can experience, collaborate and learn. The effects of interest are exponential. “Interest promotes more effective information processing” (Ormrod, 2004). When students are interested in a topic or situation, they are likely to “process information in a meaningful, organized, and elaborative fashion — for instance, by relating it to things they already know, interrelating ideas, drawing inferences, forming visual images, generating their own examples, and identifying potential applications” (Hidi & Anderson, 1992).

Bloom’s Taxonomy. Bloom’s Taxonomy of educational objectives (Bloom et al., 1956) served as the theoretical framework from which I measured higher-level thinking skills in my chat sessions and discussion board postings. “Evaluation of critical thinking and reflection requires assessment methods that encourage individual expression …”(Conrad & Donaldson, 2004, p. 25). This was accomplished by assessing responses in chat sessions and on the discussion board.

Good Practice. For this research, I have also drawn support for the course design from the Seven Principles for Good Practice in Teaching and Technology (Testa, 2000). These principles emphasize student-faculty contact, student-student collaboration, active learning; prompt feedback, time on task, high expectations, and respect for diverse talents. The underlying presupposition guiding these principles is that by incorporating these into instruction, learning will occur (Frederickson, 2000).

By using WebCT discussion board and chat tools coupled with proper guidance and instructional direction, students are able to collaboratively contemplate and critically analyze course material and discussion topics. This higher-level learning, in turn, leads to active and interactive learning, which is an important component in the learning process.

Identifying Motivation and Comprehension when using
Discussion Board and Chat Tools

Motivation. It is well-established in research that a well-designed online learning community creates a strong sense of community among students (Hasselbring, 2004). For an online educator, it is necessary to ensure that learning is actually occurring in an online learning community. In that respect, it is important to define the depth of learning students will glean when using the discussion board and chat tools by identifying and measuring both motivation and comprehension.

Comprehension. With discussion board and chat, depth of understanding can be assessed by monitoring the conversations and recording key words or phrases indicative of understanding. Exposure to thought-provoking discussions prompts us to varying ways of organizing and interpreting information and even rearranging or adding to previously held ideas or thoughts (Beeghly, 2005).

Based upon the literature review, using WebCT tools such as the Discussion Board and Chat has the potential to increase motivation, self efficacy, learning community and ultimately, reading comprehension for developmental students. The design and development of the course is crucial, and should have catalytic components which spark active learning. As technology continues to evolve, new literacies will also. I believe that online learning communities will eventually be a strong influence in developmental education for both reading and writing success and effectively prepare students for college-level courses. How soon depends upon the application of this research in developmental classrooms across the country.

Methodology-Data Collection, Analysis & Interpretation

Data Collection

The data collection portion of this paper reflects a Developmental Studies in Reading classroom at a community college in southeast Texas during the spring 2007 academic semester. There were 20 students total: 12 males, and 8 females. There were no ESL or Learning Disability students in the class. I chose to devote traditional class time on Mondays and Wednesdays as computer lab time to work with WebCT tools. The division of time provided a balance where my students could gradually get their feet wet without feeling pressure to jump right in. A preliminary questionnaire given at the beginning of the course indicated that all of my students had a computer at home with Internet capabilities; however none of my students had previous experience working with WebCT and were unsure of its purpose and structure:

“I’m not sure yet but I will give it a try! It would be a great thing for me personally because I get bored easily, so I like stuff that I have to figure out!” Angie (student)

The crux of the data included transcripts from both WebCT chat and discussion board tools which effectively measured and monitored both comprehension and motivation. Observations were recorded in weekly journals and were inter-woven with interviews that provided thorough information about the data. It also served to cross-reference the data compiled in observations. Formal and structured interviews were audio recorded, conducted individually and then later transcribed. The survey at the end of the activities included questions reflecting student satisfaction and perceived learning using WebCT tools. Tests and quizzes also provided solid data evidencing both motivation and comprehension. Comprehension was measured by scores achieved toward the end of the semester compared to test scores marked at the beginning of the semester. Motivation was measured by attendance and participation in chat sessions.

Course Preparations and Adjustments. Before beginning my research, I was aware that motivation was an underlying issue with some of my developmental students, and they were in my class because of low levels of reading comprehension. This is why I made the important decision to supplement WebCT into my classroom. I weaved activities into my course design in such a way that both reading comprehension and motivation would be encouraged and evidenced. By trying chat and discussion board with last semester’s students and experiencing some of the “kinks”, I was able to make adjustments and enhancements and conduct the research with this semester’s students. One of the issues I encountered last semester was conducting chat sessions outside of classroom time. For my course this semester, I decided to have chat sessions in the computer lab at school instead of the students “meeting” with me outside of class. Students’ scheduling conflicts with work and families caused me to change this aspect of chat and by doing so, a few of the problems were eliminated.

When the course was designed to my satisfaction for the purpose of this study, I divided my students into four groups of five for both discussion board and chat activities. I decided to use the same groups for both for ease, consistency, and to strengthen student interaction.

Orientation and Follow-up. Before engaging in any WebCT activities, I devoted an entire class period to introducing WebCT and its various components. I inserted a “welcome to class” video which outlined a description of the entire course, course objectives and requirements as well as readings and materials. We visited the chat room, the discussion board, and I showed them our Intranet class email. They were fascinated by knowing that they could access their grades under the tool “My Grades” at any time to keep track of their progress. By installing an assignment section where each daily assignment could be posted, students could keep abreast if they happened to be absent on a certain day. By the end of class everyone had successfully navigated the course and I felt confident that they were comfortable using it.

I also adhered to course management tips to ensure the experience was positive for my students. I made certain to do the following on an ongoing, regular basis:

  • Logging onto the course everyday,

  • Checking and immediately responding to student email several times a day,

  • Grading and returning assignments, quizzes and tests as quickly as possible,

Checking with each student periodically via WebCT to answer any questions, to see if they had any concerns about either the traditional class portion or the WebCT portion.

Chat Sessions. For the chat sessions, I assigned a different reading each week from one of our texts, Essays in Contemporary Culture, by Katherine Ackley. Among the four chat sessions, this paper specifically focuses on the selection, “Silence” by Larry Watson. The students prepared for chat sessions by (1) reading the text and (2) taking an online quiz on the reading. After the students finished these preliminary activities, I allowed them to enter the chat rooms on Wednesdays to discuss the readings. I decided to use these preliminary activities to make certain they read the material and would be prepared for thoughtful discussion. I also decided that I would be an active participant in the chat sessions for each group to help initiate and guide discussions. A rubric was developed to grade, monitor attendance and assess active participation.

Discussion Board. Although my class concentrated on reading comprehension skills, the discussion board provided a space where writing skills were also used and where further research could be explored. For the discussion board activities, I assigned each group readings from Essays in Contemporary Culture over the course of four weeks (four readings/discussions per week). I posed a different question to each group to answer and discuss. The questions came from “Reader Response” section of the essay and represented questioning levels based upon Bloom’s Taxonomy. Among the four discussion board readings, I chose the essay, Making the Grade, written by Professor Kurt Wiesenfeld to use in my research. The rubric I designed to assess this activity required one well-developed initial posting to the original question and two insightful responses to two other classmates’ responses in any of the other three groups. I did this in order to expand the opportunities to respond to other groups as well as to encourage the reading of most or all of the other discussions. I also chose not to participate in these discussions as I did not wish to squelch student interaction.

Data Analysis & Interpretation

Both qualitative and quantitative methods were used to categorize the research. Quantitatively, data from quiz and test scores, number of discussion board posts, survey results and scores from the discussion board activity yielded clear evidence of motivation and comprehension when using WebCT tools. Qualitatively, the student interview, survey and journal observations complemented and supported the qualitative data. Names of those involved in the research were changed to protect confidentiality. To measure comprehension skills, I used Bloom’s Taxonomy to analyze the data from the discussion board taking into account that there would be varying levels of understanding gleaned from the readings.

Sub-Question #1

What happens to students’ motivation to read when they use the Chat tool?

Data Sources used: Chat transcripts, chat quiz scores, journal entries, student interviews, and the Survey of Student perceptions of Online Threaded Discussions and Chat Tools.

Chat Transcripts (Data #1)

One wonderful feature associated with the WebCT chat tool is that the chat sessions are automatically recorded. An instructor may go back and analyze the chat transcript for a number of instructional purposes. Each chat session lasted approximately 110 minutes which allowed each of the four groups about 25 minutes per group. For my research, chat sessions provided wonderful insights to my students’ motivation. There were two things I wanted to learn from this data source: Would my students enjoy chat? If so, would the chat tool motivate my students to attend class? On the first day I introduced chat, I asked my 20 students to go to Chat Room 1. We all filed in where I suddenly saw a flurry of statements from my students such as:

            John:    cool

            Mark:   I can’t wait

            John:    for what?

            Eric:     Man [sic], this is O-tay!

            Mark:   I have done this before

            Eric:     I did blackboard but this is better!

            Mark:   yes it is

These comments pleased me and I knew right away that this would motivate them. But would it motivate them to read? To come closer to this answer, I also looked at the chat room transcripts to mark attendance. Before the chats began, I explained to my students that if they were to miss a chat session, they would have to answer questions from their text on the story and turn them in to me as a substitute for a missed chat. During the four weeks of chat, I documented only two students who had to turn in questions once. Otherwise, everyone was punctual and attended every chat session in its entirety which was another indication of motivation. From this point forward, there was a domino-effect of motivation to read.

The Domino-Effect

Chat Quiz Scores (Data #2)

In order to get my students to read the required readings, I made an online quiz for each reading worth 20 points each. According to my syllabus, quizzes account for 20 percent of their overall grade, so from the beginning, my students knew that they comprised a good portion of their grade. This was, in and of itself, motivation for them to read. Using the online quiz grades for “Making the Grade” as an example, this presents strong evidence of not only motivation to read, but understanding of the material as 80-percent of my students passed the quiz.

Table 3
Quiz grades for “Making the Grade” online quiz

Number of Students

Quiz Grade
(out of 20 points)

Grade Percentage
















Because the mandatory quiz motivated them to read the text, the likelihood for critical reading was positive. If the student read critically, took the quiz and did well, then the chances of having an insightful chat discussion with the student were increased.

Journal Entries (Data #3)

During the chat sessions, I quickly jotted down any thoughts, reactions, concerns, or ways to improve chat. From this data, I wanted to observe (1) my students’ reactions to chat and (2) to record anything that indicated motivation. What I learned from the journal entries supported both my goals. In my November 9,  2006 entry I wrote:

Wow, lots of grading lately, but have finally put WebCT discussion board and chat to work. The students love it. I’ve seen more positive reaction coming from chat over discussion board, but overall the students like it (Burgess, 2006).

My entry on February 2, 2007 continued to echo the same observations as earlier:

We had our first chat session and although it went quickly, I think my students got the hang of it and they also seemed to like it. All you could hear was the harmonious clicking of keyboard keys! I will try to organize a regular computer room for the class so we can have it a bit longer. I have scheduled the chat and discussion board portion of the syllabus at the beginning so I can gather additional data right away (Burgess, 2007).

Student Interviews (Data #4)

The fourth data source I used to measure motivation was student interviews. From this particular data, I wanted to individually speak with students to learn specifically what they liked or disliked about the tool and if they perceived that they were learning:

Melissa: We also use the chat tool to discuss the essays we have read. Do you like this tool? Why or why not?

Brittany: I love getting on chat. At first I’m nervous because I know that I could be asked something that I don’t know the answer to, but after a few minutes I get comfortable and what I read comes back to me. Sometimes other people ask the same question I was going to ask.

Melissa: Do you prepare for the chat session by reading the essay beforehand? Why?

Brittany: Yes, just like for discussion board. Like I said before with discussion board, I want to know what I’m talking about.

Melissa: When we chat as a group, do you feel you are learning? Specifically, do you feel that you comprehend the essay more by discussing it via this format? Why or why not?

Brittany: Yes, I feel I am learning because I also learn from other people in my group. They may say something about the essay that I hadn’t thought of before. I seem to understand more because I ask more questions with chat than I do in the classroom.

Melissa: Is there anything about the chat tool that you do not like?

Brittany: No.

Student Survey (Data #5)

Similar to the individual interviews, I wanted to document my students’ perceptions of discussion board and chat, but this time to have them evaluate it at the end of the semester. By using this documentation at the end of the semester, I can glean from the data the overall perceptions and experiences with the tool. I used a survey to accomplish this with varying levels of satisfaction: 1=Strongly Disagree, 2=Disagree, 3=Unsure, 4=Agree, and 5=Strongly Agree.

Table 4
Survey of Students’ Perceptions of WebCT Chat Tool


Students’ Perceptions of WebCT Chat Tool



Participation increased scores on
practice tests, tests, and quizzes



Participation increased total course points  



Participation increased understanding
of content       



Participation increased reading comprehension 



Participation increased motivation to read   



Participation increased understanding
of technical aspects 



Participation increased interaction
with instructor



Participation increased feeling of community   



I enjoyed participation in online chat sessions  



Chat sessions should be used again
for this course


*Scale 1=Strongly Disagree 2=Disagree 3=Unsure 4=Agree 5=Strongly Agree

The results from this survey reflect 100-percent response rate and included comments such as:

“At first the WebCT was a small concern for me. But then as time went on I [became] fairly [sic] good with it. Now it’s a lot of fun, especially checking out grades, assignments, and chatting with others.”

“I enjoy chat. It’s cool! I like when we interact with each other, and talk. It’s another side of the teacher, then just [lecturing].”

The bottom line: when a student experiences success, this motivates him/her to achieve it again. This domino-effect proved to be true with the framework with which I designed the chat sessions. The data sources I used to answer my first sub-question more than answered my question; they offered an encouraging path to move forward and explore the many possibilities the chat tool has to offer.

Sub-Question #2.

What happens to students’ comprehension skills when they use the Discussion Board tool?

For this sub-question, I wanted to learn from the data two things, (1) What evidence of understanding or comprehension I could gather from the discussion board, and (2) Would this understanding be enough to successfully master a test with the same format as the final? To answer these questions, I used the following sources of data: discussion board transcripts, discussion board scores based upon a rubric, and pre-test/post-test scores.

Discussion Board Transcripts (Data #1)

This source of data reflected the participation of 100-percent of the students in my class. My students were given this reading and each group was required to answer a different question based upon the reading. They were also asked to respond to two other classmates from any group. The assignment was worth 25 points and I assessed their efforts with a rubric designed to specifically fit the needs of this particular activity. To measure comprehension, I looked for evidence of making connections to previous or current content or to real-life situations. I also wanted to see rich and fully developed new ideas, connections or applications. These higher-order thinking skills coupled with collaborative learning enhance and support the learning process. This theory closely parallels the constructivist theory and may ultimately demonstrate deeper thought (Martyn, 2003). Although I saw many instances of comprehension in other groups, I decided to use portions of Group 2’s initial posts and responses for support. I saw several connections to real-life situations:

Kristy’s initial post: The relationship with father [sic] and son is usual[ly] by the father loving and caring for his son as much as the father normal[ly] does. The unusual part about it is how the father kidnapped [sic] the son and risked never seeing his son again. I was able to understand and feel the pain of love the boy and father felt for each other because my parents have been divorced for 15 years… and plus, how many parents are still together today? Not many?

Alan’s response: I agree with Kristy about feeling the love even though my parents aren’t divorced. My dad and I don’t have the best relationship.

Kristy’s response to Alan: I agree with Alan with how he hates that the mother only let the dad see him once a Saturday a week because [sic] I hated seeing my dad twice a week, but yet I was thankful to see him at all.

I also saw evidence of fully developed new ideas in this question posed by a student:

Megan’s response to Bill: you know when you are about to do something wrong [sic] and you know that you are going to get into trouble for it but sometimes it is worth it? Is think that’s what the father thought about taking his son for the night…there was no logic[al] reason for him not to be able to spend the night but it really [sic] meant a lot to the father. And even if the mother disapproved of it, [sic] the father knew he was going to get caught and he didn’t even run from the police. He [sic] just wanted his son to spend the night. I think that even if the father got jail time for kidnapping he thought it was worth [it] and if he could take it back he wouldn’t-because it was worth it and meant a lot to him.

Scores from Discussion Board Posts (Data #2)

The scores from the discussion board posts provided clear confirmation that most of my students were able to effectively read and understand the reading for the discussion board.

Table 5
Scores from “Making the Grade” discussion posts and responses

Number of Students

Grade Received


Letter Grade Equivalent

















Pre-test & Post-test Scores (Data #3)

One of my main objectives with this research was to demonstrate that my students’ comprehension skills increased and that they were able to effectively master a test similar to the DCF (District Common Final), which is a final exam administered to all of the Developmental Studies in Reading classrooms in the college district where I work. The final is a large determinant on whether the student passes or fails the course. The DCF consists of a reading passage and multiple choice and short answer questions. Students must demonstrate critically thinking skills in their answers as well as to be able to identify various literary elements such as tone, pattern, mood and intended audience. I administered a pre-discussion board test comparable to the DCF at the beginning of the semester and compared them to scores on a post-discussion board test with the same format. The scores indicate slight improvement in comprehension skills with the exception of two students.

Table 6
Pre-discussion board test scores vs. post-discussion board test scores


Pre-Discussion Board Test Score (out of 100)

Post-Discussion Board Test Score (out of 100)

Student #1



Student #2



Student #3



Student #4



Student #5



Student #6



Student #7



Student #8



Student #9



Student #10



Student #11



Student #12



Student #13



Student #14



Student #15



Student #16



Student #17



Student #18




In conclusion, the results I found in the data sources used to answer the second sub-question indicate that use of the WebCT Discussion Board tool enhances comprehension skills.

Action Research Question

What happens to students’ comprehension skills when WebCT technology is implemented?

To answer my action research question, I looked at three data sources: student interview questions, the student survey and chat session transcripts.

Student Interview Questions (Data #1)

The student survey used to illustrate motivation earlier also demonstrates overall comprehension skills with both tools. Consider the following questions and comments from the interview with one of my students:

Melissa: WebCT is being used here at Kingwood to deliver entire virtual classes as well as to supplement actual courses. As we are using it as a supplement, I chose to add both the discussion board and chat to improve the learning community in our classroom. Do you feel that WebCT has improved the learning community within our classroom? In what ways?

Brittany: Yes. When I get on the discussion board and answer the questions you put on and someone else responds with a comment or says something different than what I say, it helps me to get to know them better. I don’t talk much in class so I do better by typing it on the computer.

Melissa: When I post discussion questions to WebCT for discussion, do you read the assignment or essay before posting? Why or why not?

Brittany: I do read the essays before putting a post on WebCT because I won’t know what to say unless I read the assignment.

Melissa: On the WebCT Discussion Board, do you read other classmates’ postings to discussion questions as the assignment asks?

Brittany: Yes, because I am curious to know what they said too. Sometimes I see something that I can relate to and post something back to that person.

Melissa: Do you feel that your motivation to post your responses is high or low knowing it will be posted for all to see? Please explain.

Brittany: Well, when I know that everyone in class might be reading what I write, it makes me write better. I also want to make sure that I understand the assignment, so I make sure I can understand what I read too.

Melissa: About how many postings do you read?

Brittany: I actually try to read all of them—I like to see what other people wrote.

Not only is there perceived learning and comprehension shown in this interview, but there is motivation to know more and to read more through piqued curiosity at “what other people wrote”. The collaborative nature of the both WebCT chat and discussion board tools fosters the social aspect of learning thereby increasing the opportunity to build new knowledge from others or add to pre-existing knowledge.

Student Survey (Data #2)

This survey reflects the perceived comprehension levels students felt they reached when using WebCT chat and discussion tools. I took only those questions from the survey that indicated comprehension.

Table 7
Survey of student perceptions on online threaded discussions
and chat tools





Participation increased scores on practice
tests, tests, and quizzes 



Participation increased understanding of content  



Participation increased motivation to read       



Participation increased reading comprehension   


*Scale 1=Strongly Disagree 2=Disagree 3=Unsure 4=Agree 5=Strongly Agree

The scores were taken from both the discussion board and chat survey, added and then averaged. The results reveal that many students perceived an understanding and comprehension of the reading assignments.

Chat Transcripts (Data #3)

In the chat session covering the reading “Making the Grade,” comprehension was measured in the ongoing dialogue with my students. I designed a rubric for the chat sessions, however I only required that the student attend the chat session, come well-equipped with questions and insightful thoughts about the story, and respect others’ opinions and thoughts. I was pleasantly surprised that my students went above and beyond in chat sessions by asking each other probing questions, analyzing actions by the characters, and being able to identify key literary elements of the reading:

Melissa >>What does Wiesenfeld think about those students who ask for a higher grade (without really earning it)?

Betty>>they don’t deserved to have a higher grade if they didn’t put any effort into [sic] class

Melissa >>That’s right:-)

Susan>>that they are just asking for a grade when they do not try

Mitch>>He thinks that it’s sad that hard work is overruled by the sadness of a student

Melissa>>I don't just hand out grades...I try to be fair...but at the same time, I want you to work for your grade. I am essentially holding you accountable for your own decisions.

Melissa >>According to Wiesenfeld, who is to blame for this "erosion"? Parents? Teachers?

Mitch>>Tom, what do you think about Mrs. B's class?


Betty >>I [sic] think it’s the students that are to blame

Tom>>I think it’s [sic] a good class

Melissa >>Thanks Tom:-)

Mitch>>….to tell you the truth, it should be both

Susan>>I [sic] think it’s [sic] the students

Mitch>>Hey [sic] Nancy don’t [sic] you agree?

Melissa>>What was the author’s tone in the essay?

Susan>>He was worried


The chat session demonstrated comprehension of the story by dialogue rich in inquiry and understanding of content. Connections were made and students were metacognitive of their own thinking by sharing their own beliefs about students today asking professors for higher grades without deserving them.


This research paper presented evidence that WebCT tools, chat and discussion board, increase students’ comprehension skills. Motivation to use the chat tool sparked a willingness to know more and to read more. It is likely that motivation and learning are “mutually causal-those who are more motivated to learn learn more and those who learn more become more motivated” (Richmond, 1990). It comes as no surprise that online communication methods such as chat and discussion board are so much more than electronic communications. They have the potential to be a key means to increase motivation, therefore increasing the desire to learn.

This research opens many doors for continued research—especially in the area of developmental studies whereby as instructors we are obligated to find ways to combat illiteracy at the college level. My hope is that the research I have conducted will shine a positive light on using online learning communities therefore encouraging more colleges and universities to supplement this new literacy.


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About the Author

Melissa Burgess, M.Ed. is an Adjunct Instructor at Kingwood College, Kingwood, TX and a Doctoral Student, Sam Houston State University. She can be contacted by email at mburgess2004@yahoo.com

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