Wednesday, January 11, 2012

One Teacher, Many Discussions: Fostering Independent Student Engagement

How do we balance student engagement with the needs of teaching?  How do we stretch the tight boundaries of classroom time?  Here is one approach which uses online forums and pre-class discussion as a way to prepare students.

<--Proposal - Facebook Gallery: In the Classroom-->

Introduction: Cross-Linking Intellectual Discussion and Discovery

First, I'd like to thank CTLT for inviting me to present today, and to thank everyone here for listening.

In this presentation, we're going to consider a set of techniques used to encourage students to talk with each other in small groups both before and during class. We want to teach them how to select those ideas which appear to be the most relevant to intellectual discussion, and then test their thoughts within the wider forum of their peers. This pedagogy uses a combination of online tools, classroom structuring, and instructional modeling as a way to increase student interactions, allow room for mistakes, and illustrate the active process of intellectual inquiry. The ultimate goal is to ensure that each student personally takes part in the social act of intellectual discourse as preparation for future scholarship.

Originally, we were going to go through some examples of online discussions on Moodle, and then perhaps do some in-class rearrrangement so you could see these techniques firsthand. However, given the ready availability of online discussion platforms, I feel that it's more useful to talk about the general observations of how to run an online discussion than it is to go through the step-by-step process for a single platform. So, my apologies for the false advertising in the presentation proposal - if you do have questions about Moodle or other online courseware, I'd be happy to show you after the presentation.

Now,this presentation is somewhat multi-modal. You can find the complete text of this paper on my website,, which you'll find on the handout. Additionally, you'll find a link there to a Facebook page which provides pictures to directly illustrate ways to manage in-class interactions. If I've done my work well, you will feel compelled to visit my website if for no other reason than to see the Lego-guy Darth Vader leading a classroom discussion with penguins and dinosaurs.

Part 1: The Participation Problem

The Curse of Consumer-Based Learning

In his article "Inventing the University," David Bartholomae describes the urgency students face as they attempt to take part in academic discourse. As he writes, a student:

"must learn to speak our language. Or he must dare to speak it or to carry off the bluff, since speaking and writing will most certainly be required long before the skill is 'learned,'" (606).

As part of the ongoing effort to introduce our students to academic discourse and "engage" them in Bartholomae's notion of the student-generated university, we have come to place great emphasis on the value of in-class participation. Yet given the constraints of classroom time, it isn't clear how successful the discussion-based model of teaching truly is. Part of the problem, I feel, is the tacit feeling that much of today's demand for in-class discussion is not driven butby solely pedagogical aims, but rather the new pressure to "entertain" our students. In her article on directed self placement, Leah Schweitzer warns that universities risk becoming "complicit" in fostering a consumer-driven educational model. In her eyes, the traditional approach to higher education "which assumes we have much to teach and students have much to learn" is under tension due to a serious economic reality: today's students are willing "purchase" their high-tuition college experience elsewhere.

At the level of the individual classroom, this pressure is most painfully felt through the course evaluation. As Schweitzer writes, "students' evaluations suggest they want to be entertained while they're learning and the value placed on that entertainment is at a premium."

image - How Would I Rate the Content of My Course Evaluation?

Thus, if we are to lead effective classroom discussions, we must balance the need to teach our students while holding their attention.

The Challenge of the Classroom

Currently, I teach composition to forty-six students a semester. I see them in two sections of twenty-three students for a hundred and fifty minutes each week, and they have the additional work of assigned readings, workshops, and projects outside of class. Now, if I run a class-wide discussion each day, this translates to each student talking for an average of six-point-five minutes per week. Now, this ignores the fact that I address the whole group for a good chunk of that time. And then there's the time lost for attendance and giggles and those questions for which there are no answers. Then we factor in the fact that some students are shy, and certain other students will talk for at least eight minutes a week.

I mean, can you imagine? A single student soaking up eight minutes of my precious classroom time? Over the course of a whole week? What do they think they're doing? Participating??

image - penguins talking

Given these tight constraints, it's difficult to differentiate the unprepared students from those who are simply shy. I'm sometimes embarrassed by how terribly I misjudge my quietest students - the ones who sit in the back, say nothing, and then turn in thoughtful essays which force me to reevaluate the material I've been teaching. The problem, though, is social. Students, like all of us, are afraid to make mistakes, especially in front of their classmates. As Grammy-Award-Winning violinist Joshua Bell explains, "No one tells you what to do if you completely flop at the beginning of a performance" (64) - yet the traditional model of in-class participation is setting up students to do just that, to fail in the beginning performance of their higher education. They are justifiably wary.

In my first semester as a creative writing instructor, I tried assigning grades for participation - I mean, if a student didn't manage those four minutes of in-class participation each week, you can't just let that go. You have to dock them points. You have to make them feel guilty about their lack of effort. You know, really encourage them to come back with an enthusiastic smile for next week.

image series - quiet student becomes sad student

Clearly, the traditional credit-for-participation model is dangerously arbitrary. Further, it does not allow students enough time to engage either with the material or with each other. As a result, students who are unprepared often slip by entirely unnoticed while many of those who are prepared end up muted by the more insistent voices of their peers. In writing-intensive courses, this means that students are primarily evaluated on their essays - works which they are forced to compose alone using personal interpretations which have been neither vetted nor challenged - until, of course, I hit their work with a red pen. It's little wonder that students develop writer's block - again, the fear of "first performance failure" is not only natural, but justified.

image - sharpie marker

I myself use a big red Sharpie marker in an effort to bleed the ignorance from their souls...

My goal in this presentation is provide techniques for leading in-class and online discussions which give students the confidence and practice to overcome these social barriers to establishing Bartholomae's university. These techniques take two central approaches. The first is establishing confidence within the classroom by helping students meet each other, reinforce each other's ideas, and hence foster an atmosphere of open discourse. The second aspect involves providing direction and modeling for the nature of this discourse.

In approaching this challenge, my goal has been to decentralize the learning activity without abdicating instructional authority. We can't simply expect students to learn from each other material they have never studied - instead, I challenge my students with questions and specific assignments which they answer by working together in small groups. In this way, they challenge each other with the variety of answers they find, and then I am able further guide their learning by asking follow-up questions of each group. Students are not simply taught the content material of the course outside the course - instead, they play an active role in their own learning.

Part 2: Online Tools - Preparing Students for the Task of Intellectual Discourse

By looking at the goals of intellectual discourse, we can consider how best to prepare our students for not only the classroom, but also professional and academic careers. By the time they complete college, students should be capable of:

  1. Critical, in-depth reading of articles.
  2. Preparing their thoughts before meeting with their colleagues to discuss important matters.
  3. Sharing and considering multiple - and often conflicting - points of view.
  4. Responding appropriately to the ideas and feedback of their colleagues.

In traditional pedagogies, we rely on outside readings and writing assignments to teach the first three of these essential skills - whether they're learning differential equations or European history, it's expected that students will manage the groundwork of learning independently. Classroom discussion is meant to reinforce content learning while somewhat introducing professional courtesy. In these traditions, we have two major tools for ensuring that students come to class prepared for the work of critical thinking. Quizzes can be used to ensure that students are at least reading the material, and written responses provide a direct measure of how well students "get" what they've read. However, both tools are limited to a two-way street - the individual student and the teacher. Except in group projects (which may or may not involve actual teamwork...) nearly all of the student-to-student interaction is limited to the physical space of the classroom.

This limited time alloted for in-class meetings doesn't allow us to fully explore course topics. It was never meant to. The current system of meeting for only three hours a week is built around the lecture. Even when students break up into groups, there simply isn't enough time for individual students to undertake more than a cursory discussion of the material - in a course with fifteen or more students, it's very difficult for the instructor to provide time for each student to adequately contribute to the conversation. It's even worse if the students haven't prepared for class. If they arrive at a lecture unprepared, they can simply listen and absorb content knowledge - if they're in small groups, then they have nothing to talk about.

I've found that the best way to address this problem is to extend the discussion outside the classroom using online discussion forums such as Blackboard, Moodle, and Facebook.

Many of you are no doubt familiar with Blackboard - whether it's a curse or a blessing, it's university-sanctioned. I myself prefer using Moodle, which is a public (and free) course management program which offers many of the same tools, and I find that it's more user-friendly for teachers.

Many of my students, on the other hand, don't enjoy having to learn yet another online tool...which should be ironic, considering I'm teaching students who were born the year that Al Gore invented the internet...on the plus side, there is nothing more priceless than hearing an eighteen-year-old explain that "Facebook is so annoying" and then ask "why do we have to use it every day for this class?"

I want to emphasize, however, that the choice of online forum is far less important than the implementation. I have found myself using Facebook more and more because students can have more of a back-and-forth conversation - they're notified when their classmates post replies. However, the shortcoming with Facebook is that the replies tend to be shorter, and I'm not convinced that five short replies can carry the same thoughtful consideration seen in a single well-crafted, paragraph-length comment.

Regardless of the program you use, here are some guidelines for how to get the discussion going:

Require specific, inquiry-oriented discussions.

One of the simple approaches to online discussion is to require each student to "post to the forum." This approach is prefaced on the idea that each student should have something to say. The problem, though, is that students sometimes don't know what it is they have to say. Worse still, they'llspend less time responding to each other. Rather than fostering discussion, this approach simply leads students to share their reading responses online - as a result, there is little need for them to even read the responses posted by their peers.

To overcome this, you want to make sure that each discussion has a purpose. Rather than asking them to "respond to Derrida," you could have them "describe the possible shortcomings of deconstructionism." The tasks should be difficult - the goal is to provide a challenge which cannot be fully answered by any single student using a fifteen-minute online post. At the same time, the instructions must be simple enough that students know what they are trying to do, even if they aren't sure just how to do it. Asking them to "describe ways to integrate postmodern thought in the classroom" might be interesting, except that they've probably never taught before and they are still unfamiliar with postmodern thought.

I mean, I know I'm still unfamiliar with postmodern thought, and I write essays on the stuff. Honestly, I've been trying to wash the postmodern off my face for several years now.

Be very specific about who will start the discussion.

Most students hesitate before initiating discussions in the classroom - they hesitate just as much online. For the first discussion, it makes sense for the teacher to start.

Now, starting a discussion is far more difficult than simply participating. Whoever starts the discussion needs to establish the priorities and tenor of the conversation, providing both appropriate background information and questions to start a line of inquiry. This is why I recommend limiting the online discussions to three or four discussions per class, and then rotating which students are assigned to begin each discussion.

Traditional classroom interactions actually provide a good model for how to coordinate online discussions. In the past, I've had students give oral presentations on the daily readings - this way, one or two students would present each day to kick-off the in-class discussions. On the plus side, each student was given a stage, and some students appeared more confident during their presentations than during regular discussions. However, it took quite a bit of time, which made it even harder for each student to respond to the presentation. A good alternative is the "online presentation," wherein each day the readings are introduced online by a designated student, and then students are required to post a reply. In this model, the presenter can post his or her write-up a couple days before the class meeting, and then students have time to read and respond to each other.

Remember, though, that the the focus must begin on the discussion's start. I grade my students on the quality of their online presentations, and then other discussion posts are simply graded on completion. Generally speaking, students will follow the example of those post first.

As an added bonus, your overacheiver students generally post their responses early, and they tend to be long and carefully thought out. This can intimidate some students who aren't as prepared, but it appears to also push them to write more. Unlike in-class discussion, the online forum has a "scoreboard" in the number of words written - students can tell at-a-glance when they aren't writing enough to keep up.

The online discussion should directly relate to the in-class discussion or other graded course material.

Students are very savvy. They know when we give them busywork. To encourage their thoughtful online replies, we need to reward their efforts by giving them space to elaborate on what they've learned and presented. This goes with:

You do not need to grade every word your students write.

If you're preparing enough venues for online discussion, it should be impossible to grade every word. It's not that your students are grading each other, but that they're using the online discussions as a place to prepare themselves for the graded assignments they'll prepare for class. They should be writing more words than you can possibly read.

This means that the online forums become far more decentralized than the classroom. This is why modeling is so important. When you grade and comment on the individual presentations, you are helping the students one-by-one as theybecome better online contributors. Students learn by example, and few examples are more effective than seeing their classmates fully engage the material.

Don't grade discussions, but do grade your students.

The caveat to not grading every word is that you must reassure each student that he or she can make progress. The online discussion and in-class groups are not a substitute for personal feedback from the instructor - instead, I see them as practice. By interacting with each other, students are better learning how to interact with you, their teacher. A five-paragraph paper is scary - it's less scary, however, when they realize how you've tricked into writing a page's worth of thoughtful online comments every week.

Part 3: Expansion to the In-Class Discussion

Naturally, I've run out of time. It is the curse of time and space: a seminar paper on then nature of student participation will itself leave little chance for participation, and I would like to leave time for my fellow presenters.

As I mentioned at the start of the presentation, you can visit my website to follow a photo gallery describing the in-class mechanics of multiple discussions. The website is at, and you can find links to the specific articles on the handout.

Thank you again for listening.


Bartholomae, David. "Inventing the University," The Norton Book of Composition Studies, Ed. Susan Miller. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009.

Bell, Joshua. "Violinist Joshua Bell on the mind game of performing," interview with Kara Cutruzzula. Newsweek, 9 & 16 January 2012, pg. 64.

Schweitzer, Leah. "Accomodating the Consumer-Student." Composition Forum, Issue 20, Summer 2009. Web:


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