Electronic Messaging and Student Achievement in Second-Year Science Classes
Memorial University of Newfoundland
In 1997, The Atlantic Monthly, a popular North American magazine, published an article about the Clinton administration’s pledge to bring a computer to every student’s desk in the U.S. The article stated “in 1922, Thomas Edison predicted that ‘the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and ...in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks.’ Twenty three years later, in 1945, William Levenson, the director of Cleveland public schools’ radio station claimed that ‘the time may come when a portable radio receiver will be as common in the classroom as is the blackboard.’ Forty years after that the noted educational psychologist B.F. Skinner, referring to the first days of his ‘teaching machines’ in the late 1950's and the early 1960's, wrote, ‘I was soon saying that, with the help of teaching machines and programmed instruction, students could learn twice as much in the same time and with the same effort as in a standard classroom.’“ (Oppenheimer, 1997, p. 45)
While the motion picture, the radio and the Skinner teaching machine have yet to revolutionize the classroom, computers, or at least the guided use of technology to assist instruction have had a far greater impact on the classroom than any previous technology. This impact is probably greatest in the use of electronic messaging (i.e., electronic mail, asynchronous discussion forums and instant text messaging).
This particular study is the second phase of an on-going research project into student use of electronic mail, messages sent to an electronic listserver, and posts to a web-based discussion forum in two different courses over a three year (nine semester) period. These two courses, Biology 2040 (Human Biology) which was offered in on-campus lecture, off-campus correspondence and web-based delivery formats and, Biology 2041 (Environmental Science) which was only offered in on-campus lecture and off-campus correspondence formats, were offered a total of twenty-two times during this period.
During the period 1997 to 1999, data on student use of electronic messaging, as defined above, were collected. An analysis of these data included time of day used, level of use, type of communications, and relationship between the use of electronic messaging and the final course grades of the students.
The first phase of this study, prior to 1997, has been summarized in earlier articles. For example, Collins (1995) found that the electronic bulletin board had fostered "student-student interaction and student-professor interaction… of course student-professor interactions through computer conferencing will never be a total replacement for face to face interactions, but computer conferencing does provide another channel for such communication." He also stated that "the student responses [from a student questionnaire] seem to suggest that even students who would normally be reluctant to ask questions in class or comment on issues will do so through computer conferencing." (p. 189) Collins (1998) found the electronic bulletin board had fostered both student-student interaction and student-professor interaction. He also found students "noted that the round-the-clock availability of the system allowed them to ask questions, and often receive answers, at any time of day and night rather than just being restricted to class time or contacting the professor." (p. 85) Collins also reported that "one of the students commented that joining in discussions was an incentive to take interest in the course overall, and that this interest also led to better study habits." It was speculated that this comment may indicate "that becoming more actively involved in a peripheral activity such as discussion leads to becoming more involved with the course as a whole and, therefore, to better student learning." (p. 86)
According to Zack (1995) “electronic messaging” (EM) is a broad term that refers to several modes of computer-mediated communication, including electronic mail and electronic bulletin boards (or computer conferencing), in addition to electronic talk or chat, and electronic document exchange. One question that has been of interest to researchers in the field of EM has been whether or not the students' participation in electronic messaging affects students' performance in a course.
In an early study, Slovacek (1989) utilized electronic mail as a means of communication between students and their instructor in graduate-level computer classes within a School of Education. Slovacek found that "there appeared to [be] a positive correlation between students' use of e-mail to augment normal in-class communication with their instructors and final course grades," specifically, Slovacek stated "that each e-mail message initiated by the students was associated with a 1.781 point increase in final course grade on average." (pp. 113-114)
More recently Collins (2000) illustrated that while there was hardly any difference between the final course scores of e-mail users and non-users, there did seem to be a positive relationship between the level of web forum use and final course scores.
One explanation for this difference is in a study of general e-mail practices by Piirto (1998), who found that approximately half of the students surveyed responded "never" or "not often," when asked if they proofread and/or edited their electronic mail. This was compared to 90% of students who responded that they proofread and /or edited their written documents "every time" or "most of the time." (p. 28) According to Piirto, the level of care that university students place into their composing of an electronic mail message was very low. Similarly, Collins and Barbour (2001) speculated that while e-mail messages are often short messages about non-content queries which are 'private' and only for the instructor's eyes, postings to the web forum are 'public' and open to the scrutiny of all class members. Students are more likely to be careful and deliberate about their postings because they are for public consumption.
This is supported by earlier research completed on whether or not writing increased a student's ability to learn a subject. A students' participation in a web forum or other Internet discussion group allows the instructor to provide the student with feedback both on the content of their message and the presentation of that content. Over a decade ago, Chickering and Gamson (1987) put forward the concept that interaction is a key mechanism in enhancing learning. This concept could be applied to this study if one were to include electronic messaging as a form of interaction. However, a second area of research may indicate a greater relationship. There is a growing body of research that indicates that students who write about their subject learn that subject better. Moore (1993) found that "learning improves … when writing assignments are complemented with instruction about how to use writing as a tool to learn [a subject.]" (p. 217) In an earlier study, Ambron (1987) found in a survey conducted at the end of the course that "student response [was] extremely favourable; … most mentioned the value of writing in helping them understand [the subject.]" (p. 266)
Electronic Messaging and Student Performance
Since Collins (2000) examined just one individual class (Biology 2040 - Web; Summer 1999) it was decided to expand the analysis to include all the classes for which we had data during the period 1997-1999. The present study, therefore, examined the relationships between final course scores and use of e-mail, the web forum, and total EM. Table 1 and Table 2 show the data for e-mail use and final course scores.
Table 1 - Mean final course grades by e-mail use and by instructional format for Biology 2040
Table 2 - Mean final course grades by e-mail use and by instructional format for Biology 2041
As the tables show there was no relationship between the mean course scores of e-mail users and non-users, and overall the mean final course scores of the non-users were, in fact, slightly higher than those of the users. This was not unexpected and confirmed an earlier study (Collins, 2000) that showed no clear relationship between e-mail use and final course scores. In this study, therefore, there does not appear to be a relationship between e-mail use and final course scores as Slovacek had found in his study. (1989)
In the period of the present study (1997-1999) the web forum was only used with three classes all of them Web sections of Biology 2040. Table 3 indicates the mean final course scores for e-mail, web forum and total electronic messaging for just these three Web sections.
Table 3 - Mean final course grades and use of e-mail, web forum and total EM
As the table shows there was virtually no difference between the mean final course scores of e-mail users and non-users for these three Web classes, similar to the situation seen above for all the courses and instructional formats. However the web forum users showed much higher mean final course scores than the non-users (difference = 3.29) while the mean final course scores for the total EM users were also higher than the non-users but not to such a great extent (difference = 1.39). These data then tend to suggest that there is a positive relationship between web forum use and mean final course score even though no such relationship was evident for e-mail use. These data are further analyzed in the next four tables which show the relationships between the frequency of use of the various types of EM and final course scores and letter grades.
Table 4 - Levels of use of different types of EM and mean final course scores
While there seemed to be no overall relationship between e-mail use and mean final course scores in the previous table this table shows that there is a relationship between the level of e-mail use and mean final course scores in the three Web classes examined here, although the number of users in the very frequent and frequent categories is too low (n=3) to be statistically significant. There is hardly any difference between the mean final course scores of the low users and non-users.
Although very frequent users of the web forum achieve the highest mean final course scores again the number of students in the category is too small to be statistically significant and while frequent and infrequent users achieve higher mean scores than non-users, the infrequent users achieve a higher mean score than the frequent users. With Total EM the very frequent users once again recorded the highest mean scores but again the number of students in this category is too low to be statistically significant. While infrequent users achieve higher mean scores than non-users the frequent users recorded lower mean scores than either the infrequent users or the non-users.
Overall then while there is a relationship between levels of e-mail use, and to a lesser extent, web forum use, and final course scores, there does not seem to be such a relationship for total EM use. The next few tables examine the same data but this time the relationship between levels of use of EM and letter grade (A, B, C, D and F) achieved in the course is analyzed.
Table 5 - Frequency of use of e-mail and final letter grades
The table shows that while all the very frequent and frequent e-mail users gained ‘A’s or ‘B’s in the course, none of the students attaining a ‘C’, ‘D’, or ‘F’ was a very frequent user. In fact over one-half of all (42 of 71) those attaining ‘A’s or ‘B’s were e-mail users, while over one-half of all the students attaining ‘C’s, ‘D’s, and ‘F’s were non-users. It seems then that students attaining ‘A’s and ‘B’s are not only more likely to be users than other students, but they are also more likely to be very frequent or frequent e-mail users.
Table 6 - Frequency of use of the web forum and final letter grades
Table 6 shows that the relationship between letter grade achieved and the level of web forum use is even clearer than for e-mail use. Only ‘A’s were very frequent users, and only ‘A’s and ‘B’s were frequent users. Only about one-third of ‘C’s, ‘D’s and ‘F’s were infrequent users while two-thirds made no use of the web forum. Students achieving an ‘A’ in the course were much more likely to be web forum users (21 of 42) than ‘B’s (12 of 29), who, in turn were more likely to be users than ‘C’s, ‘D’s, and ‘F’s (only 7 of 20).
Table 7 - Frequency of use of EM and final letter grade
The relationship between letter grade achieved and total EM use is not as clear as that for web forum use, but does show that ‘A’s and ‘B’s are much more likely to be very frequent and frequent EM users than are ‘C’s, ‘D’s, and ‘F’s. While only about 27% (19 of the 71) ‘A’s and ‘B’s did not use any form of EM, 40% of the 20 ‘C’s, ‘D’s and ‘F’s were non-users.
When considering the frequency of use of electronic messaging by students, it is useful to consider Althaus (1996), who speculated that "higher levels of motivation or scholastic achievement may also lead some students to participate in [EM] more than others." (p. 14) This caution that students who would normally perform better are more likely to participate in electronic messaging is something that needs to be explored in a more controlled setting.
While there are no statistically significant findings from the second phase of this research project, there are a number of growing trends which will need to be explored in the next phase. The primary trend which will need to be considered is the positive relationship that appears to exist between those who are very frequent users of the web forum and those students who achieve an ‘A’ in the course.
This article continues a trend in this body of research which has indicated that there is a relationship between a student's use of EM and their final grade in a course, instructors cannot be too quick to adopt this type of communications in their courses and expect students to thrive. Heeding the caution of Althaus, this conclusion provides encouragement for future research into the relationship. The next phase of this future research could consider more than simply the frequency of electronic messages, but the quality of students’ contributions.
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