Students Diversity & Participation


HuiNiu, H., & van Aalst, J. (2009). Participation in knowledge-building discourse: An analysis of online discussions in mainstream and honours social studies courses. Can. J. Learning & Technology, 35(1). Get it!


Many teachers express doubt that all of their students can participate in and benefit from knowledge building. They often mention the academically weaker students in their classes. Teachers often notice that while in some classes students create, read and respond to many notes in Knowledge Forum, while in other classes participation levels are much lower. In particular, in the databases of academically strong classes we often see long discussion threads.

This study provided a rare opportunity to explore these issues, when the same teacher taught a Mainstream and Honors version of a Grade 10 Social Studies course. In both classes, students used Knowledge Forum to support inquiries into environmental studies, such as Pine Beetle infestation and deforestation in British Columbia. The teacher repeated the pedagogical design in the subsequent year, so Niu and van Aalst were able to compare participation between the two academic levels and between the teacher’s first and second attempt at supporting knowledge building in his teaching. In all cases, the inquiries were short—3 weeks—but this is quite typical of teachers early work with Knowledge Forum in high schools.

Niu and van Aalst examined three aspects of the students’ work in Knowledge Forum:

1 Participation levels in terms of the number of notes created, read, and linked to other notes, and several other indicators;
2 The extent to which the online work was consistent with a set of modified knowledge-building principles
3 In the second year, students completed portfolios to demonstrate what they had individually learned about knowledge building and the topic their group investigated.

Finding Summary

Basic Indicators of Participation

In Year 1 there were substantial differences between the classes. On average, students in the Mainstream class created and read fewer notes than students in the honors class (11.7, compared with 20.8 for note creation). Fewer of their notes were linked to other notes as well (41.9%, compared with 82.8%).

In Year 2, with new cohorts of students, results were very different. There were no noteworthy differences between the courses for the number of notes created and read. For the Honors class the percentage of notes that were linked also was smaller than in Year 1 (now only 62.0%), which made the difference between the classes smaller.

ATK results

Participation Rates

These results show that the measured differences in participation are not primarily due to the academic levels of the courses. Results were similar in both years for the Mainstream classes, but the second Honors class was closer to the these than the first one.

Knowledge-Building Principles

Niu and van Aalst rated the entire body of each group for evidence of five modified knowledge-building principles: working at the cutting edge progressive problem solving collaborative effort, identifying high points, and constructive use of authoritative sources. For simplicity, we show here only the aggregate scores (sum of the five principles, leading to a maximum score of 20).

Total Score Summed over Principles

As the graph shows, differences between the classes were much smaller than for participation. And results for the Mainstream class in Year 2 were as good as for the Honors class in Year 1. There was a small improvement from Year 1 to Year 2 for both levels of course. The teacher attributed this to an improvement of how own understanding of the knowledge building principles and his ability to provide guidance to students for work on Knowledge Forum. These results suggest that there is not necessarily a strong relationship between productivity—e.g., whether students write a lot of notes—and quality of knowledge building.

In the Honors course the average portfolio mark was 40.6 points, for the Mainstream course it was 33.6. Though the Honors class had better results than the Mainstream class, the amount difference was consistent with the fact that the courses were at different academic levels (approximately 1 standard deviation difference). The mainstream class did not “catch up” with the Honors class, but the gap did not widen either, and the teacher considered the results for both courses acceptable.

Explanation and Implications

This study has some important limitations, including that each class had only a small number of groups. It is best taken as a case study. It shows early work by this teacher and work on Knowledge Forum that spanned a short period, and therefore did not have much chance to develop. Knowledge building in elementary schools often spans a full school year.

Nevertheless, the study’s finding are encouraging and suggest that prior academic achievement may not be as important an obstacle to knowledge building as teachers might think. We highlight two points:

  1. In this study, even in Year 1 the amount of writing by the Mainstream class was reasonable—almost 4 notes per week per student. In this circumstance there was not a strong relationship between the amount of note creation and linking and evidence of the knowledge-building principles. Long discussion threads are not necessarily good for knowledge building.
  2. Significant development is possible in relatively short time (a second attempt, after reflection on the first by the teacher and the researchers). Although it is difficult to generalise, the results from Year 2 were better than from Year 1.