by Jerod Quinn, Instructional Developer, Reinert Center
“Leading a productive discussion, one that engages students and enhances their understanding, may be the most complex and challenging task in teaching.”
– J. Henning, “Leading Discussions: Opening Up the Conversation.”
No matter what else happens in my classes, I have the bad habit of equating my effectiveness as an instructor with the quality of class discussions. If I feel like we had a great discussion, then it was a great night regardless of whatever else happened in class. The same correlation works in reverse if our discussion choked and sputtered along, then I leave defeated and vow to do better next week. Now I know those correlations are not true for many reasons, but discussions so heavily shape my perceptions because I see great value in them. The conversations we have are places where students can learn to evaluate logic and positions, they’re opportunities to apply principles, and they offer a chance to articulate what is being learned. With those experiences in mind, I have been thinking about ways to extend, and hopefully improve, class discussions before, during, and after class using some of the tools we have available in Blackboard.
BEFORE CLASS: It’s hard to have a discussion when students haven’t studied the material.
What would it look like for your students to come prepared for discussion? We often have our students read or review something in preparation. But what can often happen is that students don’t complete the readings, and, therefore, have little substance to bring to the class discussions. One way we can encourage reading is to offer a more structured approach to the readings using a process called active reading. Active reading is really just offering guidance on what students should do with what they are reading. One way to offer this guidance is to write a few questions for your students to answer that reinforce the most important points of the readings. If you prefer a more structured approach, you could use the QQTP or the SQ3R active reading frameworks.
The journal tool in Blackboard is a useful tool to deploy active reading strategies. The journal tool is only viewable to the author and the instructor, and it gives a space for students to begin reflecting and thinking about the content of the reading on an individual level so they have the opportunity to bring more informed ideas to the discussion. When we offer students some of these active reading frameworks, it can help the students realize that they are not “just reading” but that there is an intentionality behind these readings and we expect them to begin applying what they are reading to what we will be discussing.
DURING CLASS: If a student has already written an answer, it’s much easier to encourage them to speak, than if you asked them to answer immediately.
When asking our students difficult, or layered questions, their responses to those questions change if we give them a few minutes to think and write before answering. Asking good questions is one of the consistent challenges instructors face in facilitating class discussions. Short, shallow questions rarely propel the conversation forward. But when we ask demanding questions there may not be time to think through an appropriate answer in the awkward silence of the few seconds between asking the question, and instructors succombing to the tension by answering their own question.
The blog tool in Blackboard can be that in-class space to think and write. This can work even better when you know the question you would like the learners to wrestle with in advance, and can have a blog prompt primed and ready before class begins. The difference between the blog and the journal is that while the journal is private, the blog is public. The blog gives the opportunity for peers to offer comments and engage in discussion. But you don’t have to have a specific question in mind for this activity to be useful. You could also use a classroom assessment technique like the “muddiest point” approach where the students take a few minutes to write about the aspect of the day’s content that they are most unsure about. Once the students have something written, that’s your springboard to class discussion. Even the more shy students in your class will be less intimidated by asking them “what did you write?” as opposed to “what do you think?”
AFTER CLASS: Sometimes discussions are just getting started when the class period ends.
What do you think would happen if you let the students generate the conversation topics? The conversation can often be just getting going when it is time to go. This is especially true of fifty minute classes. If you know the class period is likely to end before the discussion ends, the best way to extend discussion past those fifty minutes is to be proactive about it. Stop the discussion five minutes before class ends and give the class as a whole the opportunity to decide what that online discussion will look like. You and your students will struggle if all the direction you have for this is, “let’s keep this conversation going online.” But if you take a few minutes to ask what the students would like to continue discussing online, that provides incentive and focus to the conversation. The students have a say in the direction of the conversation, and they also have a concrete starting point.
The discussion board can be a good place to host these conversations as it allows students not only the opportunity to reply to comments, but to generate new threads of discussion when the conversation turns in a new direction.
I will offer one bit of practical advice when it comes to class discussions online, be they discussion boards or blogs. Blackboard allows you to create small groups of students randomly or by assignment. You will see more engagement and more fruitful discussions with small groups of no more than four to five, than you will see of large groups of fifty.
Discussion has a well earned place of distinction in higher education. It can be a powerful tool for learning and development. By combining discussion with some of the tools we have available to us, we may be able to push the quality of our conversations even further.
Henning, J. E. (2005, 12). Leading Discussions: Opening Up The Conversation. College Teaching, 53(3), 90-94.
McKeachie, W. J., & Gibbs, G. (1999). McKeachie’s teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Rovai, A. P. (2007, 12). Facilitating online discussions effectively. The Internet and Higher Education, 10(1), 77-88.