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Using Word Clouds in Online Discussions to Support Critical Thinking: A Content Analysis

Aimee deNoyelles (UCF, USA)
Beatriz Reyes-Foster (University of Central Florida, USA)
Session Information
October 14, 2015 - 11:45am
Learning Effectiveness
Major Emphasis of Presentation: 
Practical Application
Major Emphasis of Presentation: 
Research Study
Institutional Level: 
Multiple Levels
Audience Level: 
Session Type: 
Information Session
Northern Hemisphere A3
Session Duration: 
45 Minutes
Concurrent Session 1

Presenters will share results from a study that examined the incorporation of word clouds into online discussions in an undergraduate course.

Extended Abstract

Cultivating critical thinking skills, which include the ability to solve problems and make decisions based on the evaluation of sound evidence, is a major goal of higher education (Roth, 2010). When students are critically thinking, they are more likely to be actively engaged in the learning process (Tsui, 2002). With the tremendous rise in online and blended college courses in the last decade, there is a challenge in providing students the opportunities to clearly demonstrate critical thinking skills and meaningfully interact in an environment that is often asynchronous (Joyner, 2012). Asynchronous discussions are often used to encourage students to think and interact, although mixed findings have been found about their effectiveness in stimulating critical thinking. It is important to conduct classroom research in order to identify specific online discussion strategies that support critical thinking.

The study to be presented in this session explored the effectiveness of incorporating word clouds into online discussions on critical thinking. Word clouds are visual representations of word frequency in a given passage of text (Kaptein, Hiemstra, & Kamps, 2010), in which the size of the words is determined by the frequency they are used. Regarding impact on learning, word clouds may help students construct a sense of the general themes, make connections between concepts and key terms, and analyze the text with fewer preconceived notions about the original text.

Participants (n=132) were from two blended class sections of an undergraduate anthropology course in a university in the United States. In an online discussion, half of the student groups analyzed two speeches which were presented in a traditional linear form, while the other half analyzed the same speeches presented in the form of word clouds. The discussion prompt was identical for all students. For the first post, students were asked to guess who wrote the speeches, when they were written, and why they were written. In the post, they were asked to return to a module of course content and explain how the content further informed their analyses. The final post asked students to respond to someone in the group who had a different interpretation.

Critical thinking was measured through a 19-item survey, as well as content analysis of the discussions themselves. At the 2014 OLC International Conference, the survey results were shared. It was found that students analyzing the speeches in word clouds reported moderately higher scores on critical thinking than students analyzing the same text in a linear fashion. For the 2015 International Conference, we strive to examine the actual content of the discussions in order to better understand the nuanced dimensions of critical thinking being displayed by students. It was found that students in the word cloud condition exhibited more instances of critical thinking (418 codes) than students in the linear condition (290). For all critical thinking categories (articulating thought process, citing evidence, integration, reflection) but one (relating previous knowledge), the word cloud condition outscored the linear. A particularly powerful finding was that there were many more instances of the co-frequency of 'articulation of thought process' with 'citing evidence' in the word cloud condition (43 times) than the linear condition (4 times). This is because students in the word cloud condition were forced to visibly "work through" their processing of the words in order to explain their conclusion. In contrast, students in the linear condition tended to rely on entire sentences and paragraphs from the speeches rather than articulate their thinking processes. These are interesting results, given that the discussion prompt was identical for all students, regardless of the condition in which they were assigned.

While we found evidence that this strategy is effective, it is suggested to use word clouds when the focus is on the process, rather than right-or-wrong answers. In addition, students may need additional guidance about the nature of word clouds. We also suggest to pay close attention to the word cloud, and if possible, pair certain words together so the overall context of the text is somewhat preserved.

Sharing the results of this research study with colleagues from other institutions is valuable because it provides evidence that this strategy supports the use of word clouds in online discussions to support critical thinking in online discussions. Session attendees will be provided the details of the assignment (the discussion prompt, the word clouds), but will also be exposed to multiple examples in which word clouds could be incorporated. To increase the interactive nature of this presentation, we will also distribute a few discussion posts for the attendees to read and analyze.

Kaptein, R., Djoerd H., & Jaap, K. (2010). How different are language models and word clouds? DIR 2011 Proceedings. Retrieved from http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=
Joyner, F. (2012). Increasing student interaction and the development of critical thinking in asynchronous threaded discussions. Journal of Teaching and Learning with Technology, 1(1), 35-41.
Roth, M.S. (2010, January 3). Beyond critical thinking. Retrieved from https://chronicle.com/article/Beyond-Critical-Thinking/63288/
Tsui, L. (2002). Fostering critical thinking through effective pedagogy: Evidence from four institutional case studies. The Journal of Higher Education, 73(6), 740-763.

Lead Presenter

In the summer of 2011, Aimee joined the Instructional Design team at the Center for Distributed Learning. She graduated with a Doctor of Education degree in Curriculum and Instruction with a specialization in Instructional Design and Technology from the University of Cincinnati in 2011. Her research interests include eTextbooks, online discussion strategies, virtual worlds, and technology and gender. Dr. deNoyelles has published in several journals including Computers & Education, Online Learning, Journal of Applied Research in Higher Education, and Journal of Special Education Technology.