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Study Focuses on Helping Fourth Graders Make Well-Constructed Online Arguments

Photo of Dr. Narmada Paul with two students
Left to right: UK undergraduate students Rest Aliu and Joslyn Porter with Dr. Narmada Paul, a postdoctoral scholar in the University of Kentucky College of Education.

Dr. Narmada Paul is passionate about helping students gain the skills and motivation needed to make a difference in their communities. She believes that teaching students to be responsible citizens in the digital world is one way to encourage civic engagement in learners.

“A lot of civic engagement is already happening online through social media and it’s a trend that will keep growing. The ability to talk with people online is a skill that needs to be developed at a young age,” Paul said.

While completing her doctoral degree in Ohio, Paul – now a postdoctoral scholar in Educational Psychology at the University of Kentucky College of Education– designed a research study focused on helping elementary students develop informed opinions on topics important in their communities.

She developed, in collaboration with 4th grade teachers, a social studies curriculum for the project around two topics frequently up for political debate – global warming and issues surrounding immigration and refugees in the U.S.

Students formulated arguments in response to online prompts, such as “should we stop cutting down trees?” They communicated with one another about the issues online – both expressing themselves and thoughtfully reading the opinions of their peers.

“I am interested in how technology allows kids to talk to each other and how it helps them consider multiple perspectives. During the study, we saw students start to think about things in more ways than what they initially believed or knew through reading what their peers had to say,” Paul said.

She was cautious about how she framed the content, knowing that introducing politically charged topics in a classroom could raise concern from parents.  However, the response was overwhelmingly positive based on feedback gathered during parent/teacher conferences that took place during the study.

“The content became meaningful to the students and their parents could see how their children were thinking deeply about things. They couldn’t believe their kids were writing so much and so thoughtfully,” Paul said. “The kids learned different perspectives. They saw the importance of knowing all sides of an argument and how to share their thoughts on the issues with reasons and evidence. They also developed the skills needed to talk with peers who may disagree with them.”

Four teachers participated in the study. Their 4th grade classrooms were randomly assigned to two conditions. In the experimental condition, two teachers provided instruction geared toward helping students make constructive arguments and promoting student motivation for online argumentation. In the active control condition, two teachers focused on teaching students argumentation strategies only. In the experimental condition, the teachers would collect anonymous feedback and sit down with the class to talk about how they would like to modify the lessons and accompanying online discussions moving forward. It gave students ownership and control of their own learning and helped them see the value of it, Paul said.

“It gave the teacher a chance to respond to feedback such as ‘writing good discussion posts is hard,’” Paul said. “The teacher could explain to the students why it is important to do something that seems hard and uncomfortable, but could ultimately help you as a learner. The study helped show that providing students with reasons why they should do something that is new or challenging makes a lot of difference.”

Two UK undergraduate students who are part of the P20 Motivation and Learning Lab, an effort led by UK College of Education professor Dr. Ellen Usher, are helping Paul complete further analysis of the data from her doctoral research, enabling her to look more deeply at portions of the study that were not covered in her dissertation. They will travel with her to the American Psychological Association’s Division 15 annual convention in Washington, D.C. this August where Paul was invited to present the work during a presidential poster session. The students recently presented preliminary results from the research at the Spring Research Conference, an event several colleges of education take turns hosting to provide students a low-pressure environment to share developing ideas and receive feedback on research that is in progress.

Their analysis shows that between the students’ first online discussion and the last one, which took place eight weeks later, there was a significant change in the students’ ability to show consideration of multiple perspectives. Among students in the class where motivation for online argumentation was consistently promoted during the study, students showed an even higher ability to consider others’ perspectives compared with the students who were only receiving argumentation focused instruction.

“The study showed that it’s not just important to teach students how to argue well and consider the perspectives of others. Students also need to be motivated to consider the perspectives of their peers. Motivation matters. They need to know how the argumentations skills they are learning can make a difference in their lives and in the communities they are a part of,” Paul said.

Paul is a post-doctoral scholar in educational psychology at the UK College of Education Department of Educational, School, and Counseling Psychology.