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Social Dynamics of PF Threads

  1. Jan 20, 2015 #1


    Staff: Mentor

    I love PF. Via PF i had the chance to pose many questions, and to learn from the answers. I also had the change to answer quesitons within my own frame of expertise and thus help others. Thank you PF and thank you PF participants.

    Today, while watching a video lecture by Leonard Susskind, I saw the professor listen to a long-winded question. Then he said, "I don't see what you're driving at, but let me say the following." Then he launched into a discussion about what he thought the student meant to ask, and which benefited all students.

    On PF, the social dynamic seems different. Replies often seem to pedantically focus on the exact question even if was poorly worded. I too have replied that way. The implied etiquette of staying "on topic" seems to bias us that way. Sometimes that makes me cringe because it requires courage for students to post a question if they fear that they cannot phrase it correctly. No student should ever fear being made to feel dumb for asking a question.

    In a classroom, the roles are clear. We have a teacher. We have students. Everyone knows who is who. Unusually, but conceivably, we could also have a critic in the classroom criticizing the student's questions and the teachers answers. Let's use the word commenter, rather than critic.

    On an online forum, it is unclear which role the post author intends and who the indented audience is. That I believe, leads to a different social dynamic.

    Here's a modest suggestion that could change the dynamic slightly. When authoring a post (either a new thread, or a reply within a thread) the author should self identify the role he intends - student or teacher or commenter. When speaking as a teacher, one should strive to answer what you think the student meant to ask; perhaps ignoring or correcting how he phrased the question. Teachers speak not only to the OP, but to all future students who might read the thread.

    The intended audience of commenters is teachers and other commenters. Students should be discouraged from reading the posts of commenters.

    In real life, all of us are at times teachers, students, and commenters (even within a single thread). The role belongs to the specific post, not the identity of the poster.

    Suppose you read a teacher's answer to a student's question and you disagree with it. You can choose to comment on the answer or to provide your own answer to the student. Having to check a box and to decide which role you want to take in your post might help clarify your own thinking. When answering as a teacher, your mental model is that you are speaking the the student(s) and not to the other teacher. When answering as a commenter you have the mental model of holding a conversation with peers, which might be better if it was done outside the presence of students.

    Mixed posts, with combinations of teacher/student/commenter should be discouraged. Simply self identifying your post at the start could be the discouragement. An author who wanted to both comment and teach, would be thus pushed post two replies, not a combined reply.

    The PF software could aid this, first by providing the teacher/student/commenter radio button for new posts. Second by making the three kinds of posts visually distinct, such as by background color. Finally, by allowing (or pushing) students to not even view the commenter posts. It is especially bad when students comment on previous comments; it is analogous to a student injecting himself into a debate between two teachers.

    Of course the PF software can never prevent people from mislabeling their post. Perfection is not required.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 20, 2015 #2


    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    We already have this, the people most likely to answer correctly have a badge, either Science Advisor, Homework Helper, or Mentor. This does not mean that a person without a badge isn't answering correctly, it's just that the people with the badges have already demonstrated that they have knowledge, do their best to answer correctly and accept when they are wrong.

    Also, PF is not for teaching subjects. We have a homework section where people will attempt to help a member find the answer themselves by offering hints.
  4. Jan 20, 2015 #3


    Staff: Mentor

    Thanks for the reply. I'm aware of the badges. But badges belong to the person, not the post.

    For example suppose A posts a question, and B posts and answer. member C with a science badge posts "I don't like B's answer because ..." C is not answering A's question, he is commenting on B's answer. B and C might continue with a back and forth discussion, that does not directly address A's question. I could be wrong. Are mentors and science advisers told not to do that?

    At other times or fields outside their expertise, mentors and science advisers may themselves want to post questions. I presume they are allowed to do that, and that they do not use a second login pseudonym for subjects outside their expertise. Maybe that's wrong.
  5. Jan 20, 2015 #4
    We try to encourage members to stay on topic, but in a way slight topic wandering is part of what makes forum communities dynamic and interesting. Your suggestion is also just not realistic. There is no way to enforce it. Staff would tire quick and members would be beyond frustrated.
  6. Jan 20, 2015 #5


    Staff: Mentor

    Oh well, thanks for your reply. I greatly admire the way PF works, so you guys are the experts.
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