Asynchronous Questions as Starting Points for Discussion

One pedagogical experiment that I’m taking on this semester is an attempt to draw students into the lecture/discussion more fully by using exploratory questions to invite students to work on a common problem with the instructor.  While it is admittedly somewhat Socratic, beginning with a shared question can help to articulate the purpose of the class session and motivate students to think about the underlying intellectual issues that this problem engages.  For classes that tend to be relatively pragmatic, this kind of starting point seems to provide a more concrete analog for discussion at a more theoretical level.

Teachers can pose these initial, exploratory questions to the class directly, or they might pose them rhetorically and articulate the stakes before inviting student input.  According to What the Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bain (Harvard UP, 2004), these questions “confront students with a common problem (of understanding, application, analysis, or synthesis)” and help to explain its broader significance.  In a larger class, however, this can lead to a few students frequently dominating the conversation if other students feel less comfortable speaking publicly about new ideas.  I’ve tried a number of strategies to try to invite more of the class into the conversation.

The first strategy is requiring that students complete a course journal or discussion board question on the topics to be discussed in class.  Gathering these responses before class allows me to see what students throughout the class are thinking, and calling on students based on their ‘published’ written work does not put them on the spot in the same way that asking them to respond to a question or idea for the first time might do.  A second option, which I’m trying this semester for the first time, is to use in-class polling.  Many campuses still have “clickers” for this purpose, and smaller classes can use the resources at PollEverywhere to have students answer with their phones or computers.  Students can see the breakdown of results immediately, and the distribution of responses (particularly to more open-ended questions) can be provocative.  In a sense, students can see how many other students in the class share their opinion in real time, which might inspire confidence in students less likely to speak on their own or might encourage students with different opinions challenge the prevailing assumptions.

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