An Easy Way to Encourage, Track, Assess, and Regulate Class Discussions

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

For me, one of the more difficult aspects of teaching a seminar-style class has been encouraging, monitoring, and assessing open-ended discussions. There are several things that make whole-class discussions difficult to pull off successfully. The most problematic is simply getting the students to talk to begin with. This is often due to lack of preparation, but it is as often due to the fact that students have not had proper training in how to participate in an open discussion, having spent much of their educational lives in drill-and-test, top-down “learning” environments, and many of them are simply afraid of saying something that is “wrong” (because in these kinds of environments there are only right and wrong answers) and/or of appearing “dumb” in front of their peers. If you are successful in getting students to open up and talk, a scenario usually develops in which a few students dominate the discussion, either because of lack of participation by others or because these students have dominant personalities and tend to “over share” their knowledge and opinions. And then there is the issue of tracking, recording, and assessing discussion participation. I have seen various methods suggested over the years, from putting names on popsicle sticks and cold-calling on students whose stick is selected to marking hashmarks for each contribution to giving students a plus, check, or minus for the number and quality of their contributions. But I have never found any of these systems to really work. So, when planning my seminar-style Graphic Novel Survey class this term, I had to figure out a way to address all of these issues. This is the method that I came up with and which is working quite effectively.

Encouraging Discussion

First, I needed to figure out a way to encourage students to not only participate in discussion but come properly prepared to do so. If the students were thoroughly prepared, I felt certain that they would be more comfortable talking. I also needed to ensure feelings of responsibility and accountability on every students’ part; they each needed to know that they could not just let someone else carry their load, so to speak. I tackled these two related issues in the following ways.

I addressed the aspect of preparation by having our discussion days at the end of each unit, so that students had already completed several virtual and in-class activities that ensured that they had read the novel we would be discussing and had had ample opportunities to work with it via interactive lectures, small-group activities, and individual analysis, and by requiring that every student bring a potential discussion question to class on the day of discussion. I also had students volunteer to be discussion leaders for each novel; this meant that students’ peers were responsible for previewing and selecting from their submitted questions, determining what order in which to ask the questions, ensuring an active discussion via prompting and encouragement, and moving on to the next question when discussion waned. I felt that students would feel more comfortable if their peers were facilitating the discussion and, since students tend to be more sympathetic to each other than to me, they would actively participate rather than watch their peers struggle to carry out their assignment. Lastly, on the day of discussion, I had students sit in a circle so that everyone was facing each other; this helped communicate mutual responsibility and accountability, since all students could see each other and make eye contact.

Tracking, Assessing, and Regulating Discussion

Next, I worked on determining an efficient method for keeping up with which students contributed, how often they did so, and the quality of their contributions. Since this class usually contains its fair share of fanboys and fangirls, groups that can quell other students’ enthusiasm with their encyclopedic knowledge and exuberance for sharing it, I also had to figure out a way to allow students to self-monitor their contributions, since I needed to focus on recording and assessing contributions and I knew that the student discussion leaders would not know how to diplomatically handle a domineering peer. I managed to kill all of these birds with one stone in the following way.

I adapted the popsicle stick method, using sticky notes instead and making the students responsible for selecting when they contributed. I gave each student four sticky notes and had them write their name on each.  Whenever they wanted to contribute to the discussion, they had to give me a sticky note; once they were out of sticky notes, they could not contribute until everyone else had used up all of their notes. This facilitated two aspects of the discussion: in terms of equalizing participation, it forced those who would normally over-contribute to self-monitor and be more selective about when they spoke up, and for those who normally would not have contributed, it forced them to speak up because they could no longer rely on the dominant students to do so and they had a visual reminder of how much they were expected to contribute. This method also allowed me to easily track who had spoken up and how often.

In terms of assessing contributions, after receiving a sticky note from a student, I would listen to their remarks and then quickly make note of their quality on the note (a plus for excellent quality, a check for good quality, and a minus for all other remarks). I stacked each student’s notes on top of each other on a page of my legal pad. After class, I could then very easily assign a grade to each student for the discussion: 4 stickies equalled an A, 3 equalled a B, 2 equalled a C, and 1 equalled a D. I used the plus/check/minus notations to determine whether they received an A+, A,  A-, etc.; if the majority of notations were pluses, then the student earned a plus, if the majority were minuses, the student earned a minus, etc. While it is not a perfect system (a student could potentially earn an A for making 4 remarks of poor quality), so far, for this class, it has been very accurate thanks to the preparation and responsibility components that I have combined it with.

The open discussions that my students have had so far this term have far exceeded my expectations. They have made connections between novels and with both their personal lives and society at large without my prompting them to. They have submitted thought-provoking questions and raised additional questions during their discussions. They have taken to the task of facilitating their own discussions with enthusiasm and finesse. And, without fail, on discussion days, we have consistently lost track of time and went over our 90 minute discussion period. I have no real way of knowing how much of this is attributable to the students themselves and their enthusiasm for the course materials and how much is attributable to the methods that I have used to encourage, track, and regulate their discussions. I plan to try these methods with my freshman in the fall and see if I have similar positive results. I’ll certainly blog about the results, whether positive or negative.

Hopefully, if you have struggled with encouraging and recording open student discussions as I have, you will give some or all of these methods a try or adapt them for your own needs. Please let me know if you do so and how it works so that we all can learn together!

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War of the Words: How to Gamify Online Discussions

photo credit: mrsdkrebs via photopin cc
photo credit: mrsdkrebs via photopin cc

Ask anyone who teaches online and they’re 99.9% certain to say that encouraging engaging and consistent discussion is the biggest challenge of teaching online. That percentage probably goes down in upper-level discipline-focused courses, but for those of us who teach freshman- and sophomore-level core curriculum courses, this percentage is pretty accurate no matter what the class or the students’  level of online learning experience. Why are (quality) online discussions so difficult to initiate and sustain? This is especially perplexing when you consider how much social media has revolutionized our ability to engage in virtual discussions. Such discussions are a ubiquitous, daily component of almost every millennial’s life. Of course, some would question the quality of those discussions, but I tend to favor some, however questionable in quality, discussion over no discussion at all when it comes to preparing students for online learning. If they come to us already in the habit of using Facebook and Twitter to engage with peers on a regular basis, then shouldn’t transitioning this kind of virtual verbal give-and-take to a course-focused setting, whether it’s Blackboard or a private group on Facebook or Google+, be easy? And once engaging in those discussions we can help them develop the quality of their contributions, right?

Right. But we have to get them there first and that’s the biggest challenge. This is not a case of “build it and they will come.” We’ve tried that. Some of us, recognizing the clunkiness and walled garden atmosphere of most LMS discussion forums, moved to trendier forums, meeting students where they were on Facebook and Twitter. This helped some; maybe we overcame the learning curves inherent in LMS discussion boards and we saw a spike in discussion activity initially as students’ curiosity got the best of them, but this either didn’t work (because students didn’t follow the rules regarding appropriate posts or never learned how to use hashtags to signal course-related tweets) or it didn’t last (as the novelty wore off and students realized it was just the same boring kind of class discussion relocated to their social spaces). [As a reminder, I am focusing here specifically on 100% online courses, as I know several teachers have had success with using social media in face-to-face and hybrid classes to spark discussion and participation.] The problem, of course, is multifaceted. Some of it has to do with students’ perceptions about the value of deep, meaningful discussion about academic texts and issues and their lack of experience with such discussion, triggering fears about how others will view them if they say something “dumb.” Part of it is our inability to transcend the artificiality of such discussions; even relocating a teacher-constructed, forced discussion to an organic forum like Twitter cannot disguise/mitigate the true nature of the interchange. And we’ve only added artificial sweetener to an already artificial ingredient by superimposing rubrics onto the discussion, requiring a certain number of posts and comments, and assigning point values to each post and comment, further de-motivating students who fear they’ll be penalized for inept posts/comments and imprisoning students within an inorganic, regimented system of forced, mimicked responses. So, what’s an online teacher to do?

That is the question I was faced with as I began to design my first 100% online first-semester First-Year Composition class for the upcoming Fall term. So, I began to think about what kinds of activities triggered the most engagement and meaningful discussions in the classroom. I ended up isolating two specific kinds of activity: debate and cooperative competition games like the one I designed to gamify required readings. So, my next question became how I could translate those kinds of activities to a virtual space rather than a physical classroom. This question proved to be much more problematic, as both of these activities are based upon physical proximity and the ability to receive and give immediate feedback. And while both involve an artificial construction, the context and rules imposed on the students force them to be creative and to deeply engage with the questions/issues at hand if they want to “win.” So, artificiality is the whole point: these are both games and a game is an artificial construct that embraces its artificiality and uses it to encourage deep player engagement. It just so happened that I was also re-reading Jane McGonigal’s Reality Is Broken at the same time as I was pondering the dilemma of how to redesign these two activities as virtual games. In particular, her chapter on “Stronger Social Connectivity,” which outlined social network games like FarmVille and Lexulous, seemed to hold the answer. While I was not familiar with Lexulous, it immediately reminded me of Words with Friends. As McGonigal points out, these kinds of social network games are typically asynchronous (as are online discussion forums), but are designed to encourage checking in on a regular basis to keep up with and respond to “friends'” activities (something online discussion forums can’t quite seem to accomplish).  This seemed to be the blueprint that I needed for the kind of discussion game I was contemplating.

I ended up using Words with Friends as a model and designed three different types of discussion games. The games will be played in a Google+ Community. Each game has a start date/time and an end date/time; during the interval the game is “on” and students can post whenever they wish. In some cases, I imposed a limit to posts in order to discourage students from monopolizing the game and farming points. I decided to make all points earned during the games bonus points; each student’s bonus points will be tallied and recorded on a scoreboard and added to their final course grade at the end of the term (because this is a dual enrollment course, I have to use a traditional grading structure and have not gamified the class beyond the discussion games). The points earned by the highest-achieving student will determine the baseline grade; so, if they end up earning 15,000 bonus points, then all students’ bonus points will be recorded as X/15,000 (again, because this is an online dual enrollment course, I have to use Blackboard’s grade book, which requires a maximum point value for all grades entered). Some games are team-based, so students earn points for themselves and their team and the team with the most points scored earns even more bonus points. I did design rubrics outlining criteria for the kinds of posts expected for each game, but because of the gameful nature of the activities, students can have posts of varying degrees of quality and still earn points and, in the case of team-based discussion games, help their team.

The first game I developed is an online version of my power card reading game. It basically works the same as the in-class version of the game, only without the cards (I’m still working on how to use the cards virtually). Each student will be responsible for posting questions and answers at any time during the period in which the game is “on.” Here’s a breakdown of the guidelines and rules:

  • The questions must be open-ended, meaning there is no right/wrong answer, and they must require supporting evidence from the book as part of the answer.
  • Each team member may ask no more than three questions.
  • Each team member may answer no more than three questions.
  • Repeated questions or answers will not earn points, but still count towards a player’s maximum question/answer allowance.
  • Players should tag their question posts with their team name so that other players know which team posted the question.
  • Players may only answer questions posted by members of the opposing team.
  • Players who wish to answer a question must post their answer as a reply to the opposing team’s post.
  • A question may be answered by more than one player but be careful of repeating answers.
  • Each question and answer will be assigned a point value by me, based on the following scale:

4 = excellent
3 = good
2 = fair
1 = poor

  • Points for both questions asked and answered with be tallied and the team with the most cumulative points earns an additional150 bonus points.

The second discussion game that I designed is a version of the in-class debates that I often require students to participate in. Again, this one is team-based and the winning team earns an additional 150 bonus points. I will randomly divide the class into two teams and post the debate topic at the game start time. Here are the guidelines/rules:

  1. The debate begins as soon as the debate topic is posted.
  2. I will create two posts based on the two sides of the debate and tag each with the appropriate side.
  3. You may only argue for the side that you’ve been assigned to.
  4. Each response must be posted as a reply to the appropriate post and must include both a claim (your reasoning) and grounds (the facts supporting your reasoning). You may have more than one piece of supporting evidence for each claim; in fact, the more grounds you have to support your claim, the better. You can find out more about developing a well-structured and well-supported argument on pages 194-200 of your writer’s handbook.
  5. Each claim will earn a player 10 points and each piece of supporting evidence will earn them 10 points.
  6. A player may also respond to a claim by the opposing team with a counterargument, which must also include a counterclaim and grounds. A counterclaim will earn a player 20 points and each piece of evidence used to support the counterclaim will earn them 20 points. Counterarguments should be posted as a reply to the argument being rebutted.
  7. A player may post no more than three arguments and three counterarguments for full points. After this limit is reached, the points earned will be reduced by half. A player may post no more than six total arguments and six total counterarguments. 
  8. Repeated claims and counterclaims will not earn points but will still count against a player’s maximum number of claims/counterclaims. Grounds, however, may be used to support multiple claims and counterclaims.

Last, I designed a discussion game that requires the students to take turns creating and posting questions about the topic/issue under study that the rest of the class has to answer, using specific kinds of answers. This will the first game that I have students play (with me asking the first question) in order to orient them to the discussion game format and begin helping them develop meaningful discussion posts. The students must restrict their responses to the questions to the following four answer types (which can be combined in any way), with each answer type assigned a different point value:

  • Explanation (+10 pts.): this type of post is focused on explaining how something works; what happened and how it happened; what something is or how something is done; etc. (fact-based)
  • Argument (+20 pts.): this type of post is focused on presenting an argument with the purpose of persuading others to agree with you (opinion-based)
  • Evidence (+30 pts.): this type of post is focused on presenting supporting reasons why an argument is valid, using either primary or secondary sources or your personal experiences/observations (source-based)
  • Challenge (+40 pts.): this type of post presents a counterargument or rebuttal to a classmate’s explanation, argument, or evidence (opinion-based)

In this game, I also encourage students to +1 peers’ posts that they think are especially thought-provoking, persuasive, and/or insightful. Each post will earn 1 extra bonus point for each +1 it receives; however, each student is limited to 3 +1’s, so they must be selective with their bonus points (again, to discourage teaming up for point farming). 

My hope is that by framing the discussions as games, which acknowledges and embraces their artificiality and encourages both individual and cooperative competition, and making all points earned as part of the games bonus points, which are additive rather than subtractive and encourage experimentation and risk-taking, I can help students overcome their antipathy/animosity towards and fear of online discussion forums and inject a little fun into them in the process. I do not have false hopes that these games will completely alleviate all of the challenges inherent in online discussions, but I hope that it will be one step towards getting students involved and engaged in the process so that those challenges can begin to be addressed.

I know that some teachers have probably been able to effectively address the challenge of online student interactions in other ways. If so, please share your ideas, as I would love to incorporate them into my own design.

How to Teach 150 Years of Literature in Four Weeks (without Drilling and Killing Your Students)

photo credit: IronRodArt – Royce Bair (NightScapes on Thursdays) via photo pin cc

I just finished up my summer short-term American literature survey course. It’s a grueling ordeal, for instructor and students alike. My course covered the late-19th century to the present day. I had to provide a foundational knowledge in this period of American literature in a matter of four weeks, which meant meeting for two and a half hours four days a week. Normally, this type of accelerated literature survey course is handled via a brutal schedule of lecturing for the entire class period with a ten minute break at a convenient stopping point. Some instructors give a midterm two weeks in, while others just give a final on the last day of class. I don’t know why students voluntarily subject themselves to this, but they do, in droves, every summer.

The problem, for me, is that I no longer believe that the lecture model is an effective way for students to learn, and it certainly is not an effective way for them to engage with the texts they’re being asked to read. I suppose this is why so many students choose summer survey courses; under the lecture model they don’t even really need to do the enormous amount of reading required because they can show up, try to copy down everything the lecturer says, and then regurgitate it on an exam, and, vóila, they’ve dispensed with having to do any kind of real learning or thinking about the texts themselves because the instructor has pre-digested them for them (because of the short nature of the course and the inordinate amount of reading required, there are generally no research papers or other types of projects). So, the problem that I faced was how to make such a course an active learning environment.

Firstly, I had to re-think how to best use the two and a half hour class meetings. While a discussion-based model was the most obvious method for putting more onus on the students, I couldn’t expect them to carry a discussion for the whole period. Plus, I’ve been teaching long enough to know that students often need coaxing and cajoling when it comes to in-class discussion; they’re not ordinarily forthcoming with ideas and arguments about the texts they’ve been asked to read. So, I also had to consider how best to use their out-of-class time to help them prepare for in-class discussions.

One of the best methods that I’ve used for encouraging in-class discussion is to have students begin thinking and talking about the texts before class meets. Since the class was small (ten students), I thought that a class blog would be the best way to do this, so I set up one on WordPress and gave each student authoring status. I had to spend some in-class time at the beginning of the course showing them how to use WordPress, but everyone caught on pretty quickly. I then divided the class up into four groups (one for each meeting of the week) and made each group responsible for both blogging about their assigned readings and leading the in-class discussion about them. On days when they weren’t responsible for blogging, they were required to read and comment on their peers’ posts. If the class had been larger (it caps at 30), I think Twitter would have been a better option than a blog.

In addition to encouraging the class to begin thinking about and discussing the texts before arriving in the classroom, once in the classroom we repositioned the desks into a circle (which I joined) so that we were all facing each other and everyone was accountable for contributing to the discussion. At first, to discourage the class from relying on me to facilitate the discussion, I refrained from speaking for the first 20 minutes (this was harder than I thought it would be, especially when students said things that I found to be thought-provoking); once I was certain that the class no longer looked to me as arbiter of the discussion, I reduced my enforced silence to 10 minutes.

Since I was asking students to begin to engage with the texts via the class blog, I decided to make the workload less onerous by approaching the content via an uncoverage, rather than coverage, model, focusing on depth rather than breadth. I decided that two to three short stories or two to three poets per class meeting was a good number. But I still had the task of reducing three volumes of literature down to thirteen or so authors. I considered allowing the class to select the texts, but decided that the brief nature of the course precluded this option, so I decided that a thematic approach would help make the process of elimination and selection easier. I settled on the theme of “outsiders, outcasts, outlaws, and anti-hero(in)es” and selected texts accordingly, making sure to have representative texts for all of the major literary movements that the course objectives required me to cover. I also decided to make the course as visually interesting as possible by including film adaptations of some of the texts as long as the films themselves had artistic merit (I ended up selecting A Streetcar Named Desire, Slaughthouse-five, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Smoke Signals, and Fight Club).

In addition to requiring that the students initiate and facilitate discussions of the texts, I also asked them to take an active role in how they would be assessed. We spent part of an early class meeting discussing and establishing guidelines and criteria for the blog posts and comments and the in-class discussions. And I asked the class to create the final exam by submitting potential exam questions each week; these questions were to be developed based on the discussions of the texts that took place both on the blog and in the classroom, as well as the mini-lectures that I gave periodically to help students understand the historical and cultural background of various texts and the major literary movements that they were a part of. I tried to keep these lectures as short as possible and used visual media to give students a sense of the time period and events within which the texts were situated. After providing some basic background information, I then asked the students to work together to develop lists of the themes and characteristics of the particular literary movement under discussion, using the stories, poems, and films that they had read to help them to do so. In terms of the exam questions that they developed using our discussions and these lectures, the class agreed that there should be a balance of closed and open short-answer questions, so I had them post their questions to a Google spreadsheet to ensure that students didn’t use the same questions and that each of them submitted the appropriate types of questions. What I found was that the students developed exam questions that were very similar to what I would have developed myself.

Despite our limited time frame, I wanted students to see the relevancy of the texts and the issues we were discussing to contemporary issues and their own cultural environments, so I required a capstone project in which students selected a text (either a story or poem, film, music video, or song/album) that represented a character or group that they saw as being outsiders, outcasts, outlaws, and/or anti-hero(in)es and then create a multimedia presentation with the purpose of teaching the class about their selected text and how it fit in with our theme. This required dedicating an entire class meeting to the capstone presentations, but I think that the sacrifice was worth it, as I think it forced the students to apply what they had learned over the term to a text that they normally would not have thought of as requiring or benefiting from a closer analysis and I think that the class, as a whole, enjoyed seeing their peers’ interests and being exposed to texts that they normally would not have been. The selection was varied, from Twilight to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to The Help and from “Kick Push” by Lupe Fiasco to “Poncho and Lefty” by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard.

I think that, overall, the course was a success. While some students clearly put more effort into their blog posts than others, and some students still did not fully engage in classroom discussions due to shyness, I think that all of the students took something away from the course and were forced to engage with the texts in an active way. The biggest surprise for me came on the last day of class, the day of the final. When I walked into class, the first thing that students wanted to know was if they could take the final as a class. I was puzzled by the question and asked why they wanted to take the final as a class. The response was equally surprising: they had worked together as a class all term to understand, analyze, and situate the texts; to them, it seemed only natural that they would demonstrate what they had learned as a class as a class. I expressed concern about the method for assessing them if they took the final as a class. But they had that figured out as well: they would sit in a circle and take turns answering the questions on the exam orally; if they couldn’t answer the question, they could pass on it and go to the next, but they could only pass on a question once without it counting against them. If they could not answer the question completely on their own, then their peers could offer them help by posing additional questions. Originally, I had pooled 30 questions for their exam and given them the option of selecting 15 of those questions to answer. Using the students’ collaborative method, all 30 questions were answered during the final exam and every question was answered correctly by someone, with only three students needing to use their pass and only two having to pass more than once. What’s more, the class was able to elaborate on answers and point to connections between texts that they had not noticed or had time to discuss during our previous meetings. So, using the students’ collaborative method of taking the final exam turned out to be both a way for me to assess their learning and a way for them to continue to learn more about the texts and issues we had uncovered during the term.

I don’t know that this would work with every literature survey class. It may be that this one was blessed by serendipity: that I had the right number of the right kinds of students. I don’t know that I could have done this with 30 students. I don’t know that I could have done this with students less motivated or engaged with the content. But I do know that I will never go back to the way I used to teach my literature survey courses. And I will never forget the semester when my students sat in a circle and answered every question that I threw at them and supported and helped each other to think harder and remember more and make connections they would not have made on their own.

If you’re interested, you can view the class blog here. And I’m interested in what you think about the course, especially the idea of collaborative exams.