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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Using Offline ‘Journals’ in General Education Classes

While currently teaching a course on Shakespeare and Film, I asked students to keep a regular course journal in a single subject notebook rather than use the online tools (Blackboard’s blog or discussion board function).  Part of my justification for this assignment was to encourage regular writing and reflection on the material because it was a once-weekly evening course.  Rather than have all posts available for other students to read on the Discussion Board, I opted for the relative privacy of a single notebook.

I was impressed that a number of students who found typing more comfortable felt free to ask about an alternative medium, but I continue to wonder if there would be a way to allow a wider range of writing media for an assignment like this that would fit more closely with the ideals of universal design but avoid fragmentation of the assignment/task itself.  The privacy of the written journal in particular seems to have improved the quality of many posts above my colleagues’ similar assignments.  I also suspect that an unexamined, subconscious assumption about the personal nature of the written word over the printed word may have cut down on the number of directly plagiarized entries that I might have otherwise received.  The fact that not all students have the same facility in handwriting and the practical inconveniences of asking 50-80 students to hand in a physical journal, however, might still give us pause.