Student Voice

Question and answer sessions in online tutorials

By Marisa Graser

Question and answer sessions (Q&A) are a great way for students to receive real-time feedback. However, retention rates in STEM subjects for these sessions are commonly low. Replacing them with online sessions has the promise to overcome this issue: For online tutorials, studies have found a greater attendance (Campbell et al., 2019) and the same improvement of final grades (Rennar-Potacco et al., 2019) when compared to face-to-face tutorials. Jansson et al. (2021) therefore conducted a study to see in which ways online Q&A sessions can benefit the students, in particular their inquiry processes.

How to implement text-based online Q&A

In their case study, Jansson et al. (2021) looked at online tutoring with integrated Q&A in a master’s course on advanced machine learning. The teachers set up a designated Q&A area in the University’s online environment. It consisted of a chat area, an interactive whiteboard that allowed the students to add content, for example freehand drawings, as well as the possibility to share files and images. All content in the Q&A area was automatically saved to allow students to revisit it, making synchronous as well as asynchronous engagement possible.

Before commencing, access and use of the Q&A room needs to be explained to the students. Jansson et al. (2021) then suggested scheduling a defined time when the teacher is available to answer questions online. However, students should also be encouraged to participate outside of these times.

Assessing online Q&A sessions with the Relationship of Inquiry Framework

To assess how effective this approach is on student learning, Jansson et al. (2021) analysed chat protocols based on the Relationship of Inquiry (RoI) framework (Stenbom et al. 2016). According to that, four elements are important to provide an ideal educational experience: Teaching presence, cognitive presence, social presence, and emotional presence. Teaching presence can be delivered by the teacher or tutor as well as the students themselves. It includes the design and organisation of the session, facilitating discourse throughout, and providing direct instructions where necessary.

Cognitive presence means that students are encouraged to reflect and participate in discourse to give meaning to the delivered content.

Social presence allows students to identify with their course and peers, as well as to communicate openly. This is essential to develop collaboration, higher order thinking, and a secure climate where students feel like they can participate.

Social presence can be differentiated from emotional presence, where students express emotion, affect, and feeling when they engage.

When analysing these aspects, Janssen et al. (2021) highlighted a few aspects. Firstly, students frequently showed teaching presence, mostly towards their own process of inquiry. For example, they asked for help or explained what they had done. This meant that the teacher had a less dominant role compared to the standard setup of in-person Q&As. However, Janssen et al. (2021) noticed that students were still more engaged when they knew that the teacher was available and showed a higher synchronous participation.

Another interesting aspect was that whilst most students participated in the Q&A, students that did not actively engage in discussions were still online to follow other students’ questions and answers.

Social presence was also given as the concept of “we” was apparent in conversations. Emotional connections were also displayed through the use of emojis, expressing fears about upcoming assessments etc.

Benefits of online text-based Q&As

Overall, online Q&A Janssen et al.’s (2021) study confirmed that both students that ask questions and those that only read the answers and are less active can benefit from it (Bozkurt et al., 2020).

They also verified that online Q&A sessions were mostly student driven (Smith IV et al. 2020) where students were in charge of starting and ending conversations and keeping them going. This process was spontaneous, as students showed to seek their own development but also helped others to progress. This means that students learn to take responsibility for their own and other student’s learning and improve their metacognitive skills.

Finally, scheduled online Q&A sessions can also be beneficial for the instructor as time consuming office visits seem to be minimised (Kolluru et al., 2017). Some load is also taken off as other students can fill in answering redundant questions about deadlines, course structure, or other material that has already been provided.


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DOI: 10.1080/02680513.2018.1544488

D. Rennar-Potacco, A. Orellana, P. Chen, A. Salazar. (2019) Rethinking academic support: Improving the academic outcomes of students in high-risk STEM courses with synchronous videoconferencing. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice, 20 (4), pp. 455-474.
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