Online Forum Posts Improve Discussion in a Face-to-Face Classroom

class discussion
Jay Howard’s new book, Discussion in the College Classroom (a book that is well worth your time), lays out the research showing that cold calling on students is one of the best ways to get past their “civil attention.” It’s clear to me that once cold calling becomes the norm in a course, using that technique can increase the quality of in-class discussions.

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Jay Howard’s new book, Discussion in the College Classroom (a book that is well worth your time), lays out the research showing that cold calling on students is one of the best ways to get past their “civil attention.” It’s clear to me that once cold calling becomes the norm in a course, using that technique can increase the quality of in-class discussions. However, most of us are loathe to use cold calling, partly because we don’t like the perception it creates in students that we are out to get them, partly because we don’t believe it will actually lead to a substantive answer, and partly because we believe it negatively affects our course evaluations (if we’re honest). For those introverts among us who went through college courses often not talking, we also don’t want to inflict expectations on students that caused us pain. There’s a middle path here, though, that I’ve found works quite well: online posts. I use the out-of-class posts to guide in-class discussions. In my upper-division courses, students are required to post a response to their reading by the morning of the day we’ll be discussing that reading. Here are the advantages I’ve found with this approach. I can use it to call on students, thereby ensuring class-wide participation. Because students have written out a comment, it’s not actually cold calling. I am asking them to share something they’ve already thought about and prepared. I read their comments before class, and I’ve told them that I’ll only call on them when I believe they have written something worthwhile. Knowing I value their written contribution lowers their anxiety. It also helps me because I know, more or less, what the student is going to say, and that enables me to better guide the discussion. I can be certain that all students talk over the course of a week or two weeks or however long I want to set. They are unable to sit in class, politely pretending to listen—what Howard calls paying “civil attention.” They need to be attentive because they still don’t know when I’ll call on them. Their comments clarify areas of understanding or confusion. Before I walk into class, I know what I need to focus on and what I can ignore. Numerous times I’ve planned to elaborate on an idea only to see half the class comment on it quite intelligently in their posts. Now I simply walk into class, tell them they’re on track with that idea and move us on to another discussion topic. Similarly, I can see where students are struggling, and I now have time to spend on those parts they aren’t yet understanding well. I come to discussions better prepared to handle what they’re finding confusing, having had time to think through what questions I can ask or activities I can use to clarify and deepen their understanding. Posting motivates students to do the reading. We’re always looking for ways to be certain students are do the reading we’ve assigned. Having them write a response ahead of time ensures that they do so. This assignment is easily tweaked. Students can be assigned to add a quote from the reading that was a new insight or that raises a question for them, or they can apply an idea covered in the reading to a particular situation. It’s tough to write posts responsive to prompts like these if they’re only skimming the reading. I used to give quizzes, which take up class time, but I’ve found that the forum posts eliminate the need for those. I’ve asked students who have taken different classes with me which approach they prefer, and they all say the posts. They tell me that the posts make them think more about the material and they don’t feel the pressure associated with quizzes. Sometimes they have read the material but are so anxious they still miss questions. Most students talk more on their own after I’ve called on them. In every class where I’ve taken this approach, class discussion has been more robust than in similar classes where I’ve used quizzes. Just two days ago, I called on a student for the first time this semester. She hadn’t spoken yet, and I wanted to make sure she did. Her comment wasn’t great, but it helped move the discussion in an interesting direction. Later in the class, she added a comment on her own, a phenomenon I see again and again. If I can get students involved in the discussion in a manner that feels safe and constructive, they begin to believe they have ideas worth contributing. For those of us who are hesitant to use cold calling, online forums offer a solid middle path. Using them encourages students to complete the assigned reading, prepare a comment about it, and that leads to much richer discussion—at least that’s what’s happening in my courses.