July 1997 // Case Studies
Using Electronic Mail Discussion Groups To Enhance Students' Critical Thinking Skills
by Rik Scarce
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: Rik Scarce "Using Electronic Mail Discussion Groups To Enhance Students' Critical Thinking Skills" The Technology Source, July 1997. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Electronic mail (e-mail) messaging holds potential as a tool for teaching the critical thinking skills that philosopher John Dewey recognized as critical to the future of a democracy. Dewey's perspective strongly influenced the e-mail assignment discussed here. For 10 weeks, a sociology class divided into groups of approximately 5 students each and read and reacted to a book selected exclusively for this assignment. The students were strongly encouraged to (a) apply theoretical concepts from class discussion and from other readings for the course as they evaluated the material for the assignment and (b) develop a critical dialog with one another. This paper presents details of the assignment and reports the results of a quasi-experimental study of students' reactions to this assignment, including their qualitative responses.

As sociologists long have observed, society by definition is composed of persons interacting; society and interaction are inextricably linked, it seems (Blumer, 1969; Mead, 1934). However, interaction--and thus potentially society itself--appears to be an unstable concept, one available for change. How persons interact has changed numerous times throughout human history, beginning with the development of spoken language. Distance-communication--whether by drumming, waving sticks or flags, signing using smoke, writing, or printing--was interaction in which the typical mode was replaced by another, qualitatively different mode. So, too, with the telephone, the radio, the television, and now, computers.

Each of these new modes of communicating creates different interactions. Their quality is not necessarily upgraded or increased; rather, new kinds of interactions occur. Some have argued that the use of computers in higher education will inevitably erode the quality of students' experiences (Postman, 1992). I am not convinced that adoption of such technologies in the classroom inherently implies a loss of scholarly vigor or the sacrificing of community. Indeed, the potential is there for heightened engagement in course material, increased critical thought, and the creation of new social bonds as a result of students' use of even the simplest of the high technologies.

Pedagogical Approach and Methodological Background

Educational philosopher and sociologist John Dewey argued that "education is life" and that what students learn and the way they learn it need to be rooted in society (Dewey, 1981). Dewey's pragmatism focused on engaging students in social concerns and on making education immediately relevant to students, helping them to appreciate the complexity of human social arrangements by getting them outside of the classroom and into the world.

These themes guided development of my initial e-mail discussion group assignment in Spring 1995 and my use of similar assignments twice since then. In particular, a primary goal in all of my courses is to sharpen students' critical thinking skills, by which I mean both the application of social theory and a general ability and willingness to probe beneath the surface of social reality. I viewed e-mail as a potential vehicle for teaching critical thinking skills by having students engage one another in long-term discussions and debates over the issues raised in class and by having them employ theoretical and conceptual notions in the process.

Why Use E-Mail Discussion Groups?

Approaches to critical thinking can be divided into three categories: a passive appproach (read about it and then you will understand how to think critically); an approach emphasizing occasional, brief, intensive critical thinking experiences to teach these skills, such as guided classroom activities; and an approach guided by the assumption that all college students are capable of some level of independent thought. According to this last approach, which reflects my views, what is especially important is the recognition that students are capable of thinking on their own and must be allowed and encouraged to do so.

Why use e-mail discussion groups in particular? A popular alternative is listservs. They are similar to discussion groups, but the number of participants in listservs tend to be larger. For instance, a class of 30 students might be divided into six discussion groups, but there would be only one listserv. Listservs allow their members to view all of the messages posted to the list and to post their own messages and replies. My preference for discussion groups over listservs in my courses is rooted in my concerns about the quality of interaction in these forums. Listservs are like a party where every party go-er is privy to every discussion. The size of the list means that there may be many ideas being discussed, but that also means that those ideas may not be of interest to many of the party-ers.

E-mail discussion groups tend to be more focused, the interaction more intense and rigorous, perhaps not initially but as the semester proceeds. When the interaction does begin, the issues examined are selected by consensus of the group members (something impossible to come by in a large group) and can be explored with more completeness than would be the case in a listserv.

Although initially I simply saw in discussion groups an opportunity to innovate, a chance to do something different in class, later I realized the sociological value of exposing students to this new way of interacting. The Internet is an enormously popular medium of communication that has developed its own interactional norms, the expected and accepted behaviors of participants. I wondered how students would "perform," in a Goffmanesque sense (Goffman, 1973). How would students present themselves socially? Would they learn proper Internet etiquette? Would students seek to emulate a conversational style? Would their writings be like letters or speeches? And, most important, would students learn to think critically by interacting with a text and with one another, thereby developing a multiple-way dialog? I saw in e-mail an opportunity for students to experience critical thinking within the context of a new mode of interacting. I hoped that e-mail would soften the frequently disconcerting pressure that results from being compelled to aggressively question a text.

There was a second justification for requiring my students to participate in e-mail discussion groups. Because e-mail assignments are completed outside of class, finite class time would not be spent on honing critical thinking skills; yet, the class as a whole would reap the benefits of these emergent skills. Reading and responding to one another's messages, they could add their own observations at their leisure.

Another post-hoc justification for using this technique was that familiarity with electronic messaging is expected from college graduates today. Graduates seeking jobs must be conversant with electronic mail and the World Wide Web (WWW). These tools are pervasive in the business and governmental world today. Moreover, a recent study found that workers who use e-mail are paid, on average, 7.4 % more than colleagues who don't; this e-mail gap holds even after controlling for job prestige and other factors (Chronicle of Higher Education, 1996).

Developing and Undertaking E-mail Assignments

The only course in which I have used e-mail is Environmental Sociology, which examines the interactions between societies and the nonhuman environments in which societies are embedded. The general outline of my course includes sections on: biological diversity; environmental history, policy, and politics; the central issues in the sociological literature on the environment, such as environmental attitudes, the environmental movement, and the social construction of nature; and environmental literature. With this range of topics, and given that environmental issues are among the most contentious in U.S. society, environmental sociology provides numerous opportunities to develop critical thinking skills.

Outline of the assignment. My e-mail assignment has three components: a book that is the immediate object of discussion, a set of discussion questions, and the students' interactions with one another in their e-mail discussion groups. In summary: For each of 10 weeks in the middle of the semester (usually 15 or 16 weeks long) students read a section of the assigned e-mail book, and they respond to discussion questions and develop observations and pursue issues on their own and in conjunction with members of their discussion group. I use two books for this assignment: John McPhee's Conversations with the Archdruid (McPhee, 1971), which I assigned the first two times, and Rick Bass' The Ninemile Wolves (Bass, 1992), which I used most recently (Fall 1996). McPhee's book chronicles the interactions of environmentalist David Brower with three development-minded antagonists. Bass' volume is doubly relevant because it traces the work of federal wildlife agents who effectively acted as liaisons between a pack of endangered wolves that settled in a Montana valley (I teach at a Montana university) and because it confronts readers with a host of issues at the heart of the environmental debate today (including the future of the Endangered Species Act and the tension between development and wildlife). The books are appropriate for the collegiate level, yet they are relatively easy reading. The books are also thought-provoking. The authors and the persons being written about have strong opinions, which facilitates critical thought. The e-mail book is discussed only in the e-mail discussion groups; if the book is referred to at all in class, it is only in passing.

Setting up the discussion groups. I randomly assign students to discussion groups, usually in the second week of the semester. This gives the roster a chance to settle out as students drop and add the course. The ideal group size is four or five; fewer than that and the opinions expressed in the group tend not to be very diverse; if there are many more students, they get frustrated having to read so much mail before they voice their own opinions.

Students need to have their own e-mail accounts. Instructors may allow students to use their own user identifications (e-mail names). My approach is to have the computing services office on campus create accounts that students use only for my class. I inform students of the group they are in, and when the students briefly meet with their group in class they select a time to join me in a computer lab to take care of various housekeeping chores. One of these is setting up their e-mail accounts. Another is the creation of a distribution list, a simple file with several e-mail addresses that automatically sends outgoing mail to recipients, saving students from having to send their messages individually to each group member and to me each week. This meeting is also important for students unfamiliar with or uncomfortable with e-mail; I can mollify anxieties and walk neophytes through the basic steps of sending and reading messages.

At the meeting, which is the only time that students meet together as part of this assignment, I walk students through the creation of their distribution lists, and they send and read sample messages by following my e-mail cheat sheet with step-by-step instructions for e-mail messaging. This avoids confusion on campuses where more than one e-mail system is found. Of course, this means an instructor needs to be familiar with those systems as well; on my campus there is one primary e-mail software program, but in my department's computer lab a different program is used. The meetings, approximately a half hour long, also provide an opportunity to present the details of the assignment--requirements, deadlines, and the like--in a small-group setting.

The assignment. At the group meetings I distribute the assignment sheet and discussion questions to students. At minimum, the assignment requires students to read the required section from the e-mail book and to respond to the discussion questions with an e-mail message each week for 10 weeks. The weekly assignment length is approximately two computer screens, which equates to between 300 and 400 words. I print out each student's posting and grade it.

I begin the assignment sheet by explaining that the author has strong opinions that I think will challenge them to explore their own feelings regarding this important environmental issue. I suggest that they will have numerous opportunities to relate the book to issues we discuss in class, such as environmental history, policy, sociology, and ethics. I explain that their assignment is to correspond with others in their e-mail group each of the next 10 weeks about succeeding sections of the book.

Having held an initial e-mail tutorial, I require them to submit weekly entries to fellow conferees and to me anytime during the week, cautioning them to read their e-mail to see what their fellow conferees are saying. Because their grade depends in large part on their ability to effectively communicate ideas with the other students in their group and to engage in dialogue with them, I pose questions each week to get them started. Fulfilling the minimum requirement of responding to one or more discussion questions will result in a middle-range grade or lower, depending on the quality of the comments. Those desiring higher grades are asked to respond to the comments made by others in their group and to link their comments to other readings or lectures from the course. The effect of this is to reward those who try harder both to critically assess the material in the e-mail book and to improve the overall interaction in the group.

Students' Reactions to the Assignment

In the fall 1996 term I undertook a study of students' reactions to the e-mail assignment. Using a quasi-experimental design, I initially administered a brief survey asking students about their past e-mail experiences and their expectations of the semester's e-mail assignment, and I gathered basic demographic data. Soon after the students posted the last of their essays I administered a second survey, this one with two closed-ended questions intended to follow-up on questions in the earlier survey and several open-ended items, along with demographic questions.

Quantitative Data

Demographically, the class changed little over the 10 weeks of the assignment. Although the number of students completing the initial survey (32) was larger than the number completing the second survey (26), the two groups are almost identical when their demographic responses are expressed as percentages. As for the substantive questions, students' prior experiences with e-mail were bimodally distributed, with 38% having had no prior e-mail experience and 31% reporting extensive experience; the remaining 22% had had a small amount of experience using e-mail. Of those with prior experience, 64% said they used e-mail more than once each week. More than half of the students (53%) had never used e-mail in a class. Of the remainder, 80% had used electronic messaging in only one course.

Two attitudinal questions were written so that they could be compared to examine whether or not the e-mail assignment had affected students' feelings toward e-mail generally and toward its use in courses in particular. Nearly all students (94%) had a "curious" or "positive" attitude toward e-mail at the start of the course; 88% viewed e-mail positively, following completion of the assignment. When the first survey was administered, most students (97%) saw substantial potential value in e-mail assignments; at the end of the semester the results were almost identical--96% felt the experience had been worthwhile educationally.

These quantitative survey results indicate that students' e-mail experiences in this course had minimal impact on their attitudes and expectations about e-mail generally. Expectations that were high to begin with and attitudes that were initially positive changed little. I am somewhat relieved about this, especially because there were several computer software problems that made it difficult for some students to complete the assignment over the first half of the 10 weeks. However, those problems might be somewhat responsible for the lack of any shift in attitudes toward the far-positive end of the response scale. Also, although students can experience burnout when required to undertake an assignment for many weeks, there was no drop off in the number of students submitting e-mail messages, as might have been expected. (It should be noted that the e-mail assignment as a whole was worth 10% of a student's course grade, so in effect each week's message was worth only 1% toward the final grade.)

Qualitative Data

More insight into students' attitudes toward this assignment comes from the open-ended questions included in the final survey. Students were asked three questions about the e-mail experience in the class: What was the worst part about the e-mail assignment? What was the best part about the e-mail assignment? and What suggestions do you have to improve assignments like this in the future?

Nearly equal numbers of students identified the group experience negatively (8 students) and positively (9 students). Among the complaints were that some group members did not elaborate enough on their ideas and that there was not enough discussion. On the other hand, students said they enjoyed reading others' different ideas and learning from others. As one student wrote, "The best part was being able to see all of the connections among other students, other books, and class discussion. It allowed for a better understanding of the concepts involved."

Regarding the quantity and quality of group interactions, I conclude that students took seriously the assignment's directions to make those connections and were upset when others in their group failed to do so. Sociologically, a norm developed, based upon mutual interaction; although mandated in the assignment, the norm emerged only when students in the group undertook activities to realize the norm, and they appeared upset that others deprived them of opinions that would have heightened the quality of interaction in the group. One student suggested that interaction could be improved by creating larger groups as a hedge against the lack of, or poor quality of, participation by some students. This strikes me as a salient point, although my initial concerns remain that large groups may be unwieldy for students.

Other complaints included: that the assignment took too much time (some adding, in essence, for too little credit); that there was not enough material to respond to; that my expectations were unclear initially; and that the connections between the e-mail book and other class readings were too difficult to make. Each of these criticisms was mentioned by only two or three students, and only the first of them causes me much concern. Given the strict grading requirements I developed for Fall 1996, a weight of 15 to 20% of the final grade would probably not be inappropriate for this assignment.

Three students felt pressured because the assignment was required; they would have preferred that it be optional or extra-credit, a notion that I am resistant to. Two students suggested that I "play an active role in the discussion" or "discuss the e-mail book in class." I prefer to interact with students by making comments on the printed copies of their messages, though I can see some benefits to active participation, including sharing additional information with groups and encouraging groups to delve deeper into issues. Still, the discussion was intended to be the students', with little input from me. The assignment was an invitation to them to develop critical insights individually and collectively.

Eight students mentioned reading The Ninemile Wolves among the assignment's positive experiences. Four said that learning how to communicate by electronic mail was one of the best parts of the assignment. Others enjoyed the challenge of critical thinking and the enjoyment of unfettered exploration of ideas; one student wrote, "You could speak your piece and weren't docked for your ideas." It is disappointing that more students did not mention the development or sharpening of critical thinking abilities, although perhaps this was on the minds of those who were disappointed in the quality of group interactions.

Potential Areas of Improvement

I am particularly pleased with the qualitative feedback. The fact that every student completed the open-ended section of the survey demonstrates that they took the assignment seriously. I should add two concerns of my own. First, in my initial two uses of this assignment, a problem arose with the discussion questions. Perhaps because this kind of assignment was so new and different to many students, or perhaps because they were lazy, students were reticent about posing their own questions or otherwise exploring issues on their own. The discussion questions became a crutch rather than themes around which students might frame their observations and critical remarks. I attempted to remedy this in the Fall 1996 by making a part of each student's grade contingent upon responding to other group members' observations, as I noted above. This also compelled students to read other student's postings to the group, and facilitated more interaction.

A second concern is that the assignment highlights the limits of electronic mail as a mode of interaction. Students' interactions tended to be a series of brief essays rather than conversational or discussion-like. I think this is because they only posted messages once each week. Were they to communicate more frequently with one another--say, several times a week--the interactions would probably have more of a discussion feel. Of course, this would necessitate more effort on their part, and the system of rewards for the course would have to be altered. On the other hand, one expects qualitatively different interactions with each new distance-communication technology, as was observed earlier.


I still do not know if anything new has been created in new forms of interacting. But the students seem to have been excited about examining issues critically and doing so using a new medium. My point was not to launch students into cyberspace nor to overwhelm them with useless information. Rather, the idea behind my use of this e-mail assignment was to empower students and to encourage them to take on the role of critic and inquirer. John Dewey wanted our democracy to democratize itself. I like to think that the new information technologies have the promise of contributing to that most important project.


Bass, R. (1992). The ninemile wolves. New York: Ballantine.

Blumer, H. (1969). Symbolic interactionism: Perspective and method. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Chronicle of Higher Education. (1996). [On-line] Available: November 1, Doc. No. A25.

Dewey, J. [1973] (1981).The Philosophy of John Dewey. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Goffman, E. (1973). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Woodstock, NY: Overlook.

Mead, G. H. (1934). Mind, self and society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

McPhee, J. (1971). Encounters with the Archdruid. New York: Noonday.

Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New York: Vintage.

action gamesdownloadable gamespc game downloadsadventure gamespuzzle gamesplatform gameshidden object gamesmarble popper gamesbrain teaser games
View Related Articles >