Can students learn science from a carefully designed online peer discussion? This research contrasts two formats of contributed comments - historical debate and narrative text - and assesses the impact of an asynchronous discussion on student understanding of the nature of light. Students discuss the question: Why do paint chips look different colours in the hardware store than they do at home? We find that students gain integrated understanding of the nature of the colour from both discussion formats. The historical debate format succeeds for more students in part because the alternative views are more memorable and in part because the debate format models the process of distinguishing ideas. We discuss how online, asynchronous peer discussions can be designed to enhance cohesive understanding of science.
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