Using the Columbo approach on Discussion Boards

As pat of our ongoing development of an electronic laboratory manual at Edinburgh, I decided this year to incorporate discussion boards to support students doing physical chemistry labs. It’s always a shock, and a bit upsetting, to hear students say that they spent very long periods of time on lab reports. The idea behind the discussion board was to support them as they were doing these reports, so that they could use the time they were working on them in a more focussed way.

The core aim is to avoid the horror stories of students spending 18 hours on a report, because if they are spending that time on it, much of it must be figuring out what the hell it is they are meant to be doing. Ultimately, a lab report is a presentation of some data, usually graphically, and some discussion of the calculations based on that data. That shouldn’t take that long.

Setting Up

The system set-up was easy. I had asked around and heard some good suggestions for external sites that did this well (can’t remember it now but one was suggested by colleagues in physics where questions could be up-voted). But I didn’t anticipate so many questions that I would have to answer only the most pressing, and didn’t want “another login”, and so just opted for Blackboard’s native discussion board. Each experiment got its own forum, along with a forum for general organisation issues.


A postgrad demonstrator advised me to allow the posts to be made anonymously, and that seemed sensible. Nothing was being graded, and I didn’t want any reticence about asking questions. Even anonymously, some students apologised for asking what they deemed “silly” questions, but as in classroom scenarios, these were often the most insightful. Students were told to use the forum for questions, and initially, any questions by email were politely redirected to the board. In cases close to submission deadlines, I copied the essential part of the question, and pasted it to the board with a response. But once reports began to be due, the boards became actively used. I made sure in the first weekend to check in too, as this was likely going to be the time that students would be working on their reports.

The boards were extensively used. About 60 of our third years do phys chem labs at a time, and they viewed the boards over 5500 times in a 6 week period. Half of these views were on a new kinetics experiment, which tells me as organiser that I need to review that. For second years, they have just begun labs, and already in a two week period, 140 2nd years viewed the board 2500 times. The number of posts of course is nowhere near this, suggesting that most views are “lurkers”, and probably most queries are common. Since students can post anonymously, I have no data on what proportion of students were viewing the boards. Perhaps it is one person going in lots, but given the widespread viewership across all experiments, my guess is it isn’t. The boards were also accessible to demonstrators (who correct all the reports), but I’ve no idea if they looked at them.


The reception from students has been glowing, so much so that it is the surprise “win” of the semester. (Hey, look over here at all these videos I made… No? Okay then!) Students have reported at school council, staff student liaison committees, anecdotally to me and other staff that they really like and appreciate the boards. Which of course prompts introspection.

Why do they like them? One could say that of course students will like them, I’m telling them the answer. And indeed, in many cases, I am. The boards were set up to provide clear guidance on what is needed and expected in lab reports. So if I am asked questions, of course I provide clear guidance. That mightn’t always be the answer, but it will certainly be a very clear direction to students on what they should do. But in working through questions and answers, I stumbled across an additional aspect.

One more thing

Me, when asked an electrochemistry question
Me, when asked an electrochemistry question

Everyone’s favourite detective was famous for saying: “oh: just one more thing“. I’ve found in the lab that students are very keen and eager to know what purpose their experiment has in the bigger context, where it might be used in research, something of interest in it beyond the satisfaction of proving, once again, some fundamental physical constant. And in honesty, it is a failing on our part and in the “traditional” approach that we don’t use this opportunity to inspire. So sometimes in responding to questions, I would add in additional components to think about – one more thing – something to further challenge student thought, or to demonstrate where the associated theory or technique in some experiment we were doing is used in research elsewhere. My high point was when I came across an experiment that used exactly our technique and experiment, published in RSC Advances this year. This then sparked the idea of how we can develop these labs more, the subject of another post.

Again I have no idea if students liked this or followed up these leads. But it did ease my guilt a little that I might not be just offering a silver spoon. It’s a hard balance to strike, but I am certainly going to continue with discussion boards for labs while I work it out.

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