Gary McClain, PhD
I can only speak for myself here, but just when I think I have a solid approach to managing discussions, I realize I have more to learn. Issues that come up with students may cause me to question my discussion management. Discussion formats may change as courses are updated. And suggestions from colleagues can lead me to revising what I currently consider best practice, or at least my best shot at best practice.
Basically, I had been encouraging students to write a “mini essay” for their initial response, and to write at least one paragraph per question in the discussion, supported by references. They can then respond to any aspect of the other students initial posts during the discussion. I could then grade the initial response for each student in its entirety, as well as their responses to other students.
I have to be honest here. This approach worked well for me as the instructor. But I was beginning to ask myself if it was the best way to manage discussions. I compared it to what I do in live classrooms. If each student “pontificated” a lengthy response to each lecture, this would not exactly make for the liveliest discussion. We might all get lost.
So I had been considering how I should change my approach in a way that still provided me with a sense of control over student performance in the discussions.
And then an opportunity presented itself:
I have recently encountered a new discussion format in a couple of the courses I teach for the School of Health Sciences. Essentially, each discussion begins with an opinion question, which students may respond to before they have read the materials for that module. This gets the conversation going. The questions that follow the opinion question are substantive, and require a reading of the materials/watching the videos and a response that is crafted based on what students encountered.
With this format, the mini essay approach really doesn’t work as well. If students have to take the time to consider all of the questions in the discussion, the spontaneity of beginning with their opinion gets lost. And the discussion wouldn’t progress like a discussion.
I recently discussed my concerns with Anna Zendell, a faculty program director, and she suggested that I consider creating my own threads each module. One thread for the opinion post, followed by a thread for each of the discussion questions. She mentioned that another faculty member had taken the additional step of not allowing students to create their own threads.
This was a revelation!
I posted an announcement in Module Three, alerting students to the new approach. I informed them that we would begin the module with the opinion question, and the other questions would be introduced during the course of the module.
This has benefited me and my students in a variety of ways. For one, it gives me more control over the discussion, because I have additional assurance that students will address all of the questions (which they weren’t always doing in their mini essays). It also gives me the sense that we are having a more spontaneous discussion, with students discussing one idea or concept at time. The flow of their responses seems much more natural. So much so that I am adapting this approach in all of my classes.
Students, in turn, don’t have to craft one lengthy post before they can join in the discussions. This is much less overwhelming to them. They are having livelier discussions and, hopefully, more fun.
One issue remains, however. Students are jumping in right on time with their initial opinion post. But my threads for their responses to the substantive questions may languish until Saturday. So far, my “gentle reminders” to stay involved are not having as much impact as I would like.
But one step at a time.
I am always open to new and better ways to conduct discussions. If you have any ideas, please let me know!