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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Learning Spaces As Making Spaces

Image courtesy of be you.
Image courtesy of be you.

The games-based learning MOOC is officially over, but for those of us who have chosen to pursue the Games-Based Learning Badge, the process of collating the work that we have done during the MOOC is still ongoing (you can see my portfolio, which includes blog posts related to the MOOC, some of my discussion forum responses, and my final project on my Storify page). This is not the first MOOC that I’ve taken, but it is certainly the best by far. Granted, I’ve only taken two, but the other, which I posted about last year, was so diametrically opposed to this one in terms of methodology and design that I can’t help but view the two that I have taken as existing at opposite ends of the MOOC spectrum: the worst kind of open online learning that MOOCs (far too often) represent and the best kind of open online learning that MOOCs can (far too rarely) realize.

There are several aspects of the GBL MOOC that, for me, made it so much better than my previous MOOC experience, among them the constructivist and connectivist pedagogical philosophies that underpinned every aspect of the MOOC’s design. An especially important outcome of the course was the fact that I came away not only having learned something new and connected with people with whom I can continue to share ideas and learning experiences, but that I also came away with a tangible piece of usable pedagogical work: the games-based learning project. For, as much as it was a space (or, rather spaces) in which to learn, share, hack, and play, the MOOC was also a space in which to make.

Over the past few semesters, I have found this philosophy of the classroom as makerspace bleeding over more and more into my own course designs and, most recently, into my presentation and workshop designs as well. In several of my classes, I have eschewed standardized or even open-ended final exams for student-designed projects and research slams. And my students have whole-heartedly embraced the change. So I’ve begun to consider how I might integrate making into the day-to-day learning, rather than just isolating it within the end-of-term project. While doing so will require sacrificing some of the directed learning time, based on the quality of work and level of engagement that my students have demonstrated in their final projects, it’s a sacrifice that I think will be worth it.

One option is the 20% Project. This method gives students 20% of their in-class time to work on a learning project that they choose and design themselves. I’m already doing something similar in my Graphic Novel class this term. Because we meet for 2 1/2 hours each day, I am allowing students 30 minutes of class time to work on their final projects. This gives them the opportunity to conference with me and to seek advice, ideas, and feedback from their peers. But the 20% Project is typically an ungraded, strictly learning-for-the-sake-of-learning-and-having-fun endeavor, so for future classes, I may have students choose between an ungraded 20% project and a formal final exam or an ungraded 20% project and a graded final project that takes the place of a formal final exam. I think it will be interesting to see how students respond to these options.

I’m also looking for ways to turn regular in-class activities into opportunities to make. This term, my Graphic Novel students spent the first two days of class reading and discussing Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. Instead of traditional reading quizzes, I had them complete various drawing assignments that would demonstrate that they had read the assigned chapters and understood the concepts covered in them. For example, in order to demonstrate understanding of representation, I had students draw realistic, iconic, and symbolic representations of themselves. To demonstrate understanding of closure, I had them draw a two-panel comic that represented either a subject-to-subject, aspect-to-aspect, scene-to-scene, moment-to-moment, or action-to-action transition. The students are working in small groups to teach the graphic novels we are reading this term and I have left the design of each instructional session completely up to them. So far, each instructional team has integrated some type of maker activity into their lesson. The group teaching Watchmen had everyone create a multi-panel comic that might be written if superheroes were an everyday reality, and then held a competition for the best set of panels. The instructional team for V for Vendetta asked everyone to design their own political activist/vigilante mask. It’s evident from the fact that each instructional team has created some type of activity focused on making and the enthusiasm with which the class approaches their maker projects that students enjoy the challenge of making something that represents their individual talents, ideas, and knowledge.

Seeing the success of creating makerspaces for learning in the classroom has inspired me to reconsider how I design and deliver presentations and workshops. I have the opportunity this summer to lead two workshops for k12 teachers and  I am designing each to be not just a chance to learn about new methods and technologies, but to use what they learn to actually design a unit or an entire curriculum with help and feedback from each other. So, those attending my workshop on immersive role-play will be provided with an outline of the questions I used and the steps that I took to create a class based upon immersive role-play, and will have time during the workshop to brainstorm and refine their own immersive role-play unit.

As I have written before, I see the desire to make as being a natural aspect of the hyper-digitalized  informationalism that characterizes our students’ everyday experiences:

Analogous to (digital) quilting bees, Maker Faires recognize and respond to several aspects of 21st century socioeconomics and the attendant cultural shifts: the need/desire to collaborate, co-op, share, create, and connect with each other and available resources in both new (digital) and old (humanist) ways. In a hyperdigitalized world, authenticity has become a scarce–or at least more difficult to locate–resource, so it seems only natural that people have begun to value the work of making something both beautiful and useful from raw materials.

When we turn learning spaces into opportunities to make, the dichotomy between digital and analog, virtual and real, hi-tech and low-tech no longer matter as much as we like to pretend they do. For students (and teachers), it’s not the tools that matter, it’s the opportunity to use those tools to create something new. What they create doesn’t necessarily have to be useful and it certainly doesn’t have to be graded or to “count” for something. It just has to be something that didn’t exist before. And would have never existed if you had not allowed them the space and the time to make it.

Ideas Are As Important As Actions

Life flows on within you and without you. ~George Harrison

There’s a lot of emphasis on constructivist learning these days. This, of  course, is a response to the passive-receptive, teacher-centered style of instruction that has been the defining characteristic of the industrialized school model. Constructivism seeks to flip this model by removing the teacher from center stage and asking students to adopt a more active-creative role, whether it be to research and solve a problem (as in problem-based learning); to develop and answer questions of interest to them and others (as in challenge-based learning); or to work to create a tangible product that reflects their understanding on an issue or concept (as in project-based learning). And these are all preferable models of learning to the lecture-focused, drill and kill method.

But I hope that in the process of reforming the focus of the academy into one of learning by doing, we don’t lose sight of the importance of ideas. The life of the mind is still a valuable and necessary component of education.

Unfortunately, I’m seeing a creeping disdain for anything that doesn’t result in some type of action on the part of the learner. For example, in his blog post, “What’s the Problem with TED Ed?”, Shelly Blake-Plock takes issue with the use of TED videos in education:

TED — in the form it is presented online to the masses — is not about doing. It is about watching. Listening. Consuming. Maybe leaving a comment or sharing a link to improve your TEDCred score. Yes, there is a wealth of interesting information and lots to think about. Personally, I find many of the lectures to be inspired. But we shouldn’t confuse an inspiring lecture and provocative ideas with “learning”.

But I would argue that oftentimes we can learn from others’ ideas. I learned a great deal about how a classroom can and should be more like a skatepark from watching TED talks by Dr. Tae Kim and Rodney Mullen and I have since used their ideas as a framework for redesigning my classroom to focus more on the principles that are valued within the skatepark. I also learned about the extraordinary abilities of children who are empowered to make a tangible contribution to their community or who simply have a computer placed within reach with no directions for how to use it. I’ve learned about what it’s like to envision the world as one big comic book and what it’s like to envision the world in pictures. And while I have not acted on any of these last four ideas, I have certainly learned from them, and my own imaginative vision of the world is richer because of them. TED is about sharing ideas. Sometimes those ideas may lead to action and sometimes they may lead to intellectual enlightenment. We can learn from both.

In my First-Year Composition Course, I ask my students to grapple with ideas. In fact, we spend a little over half of the semester dealing with ideas–theirs and those of others that they encounter as they read books, articles, websites, and blogs about whatever issue we are focusing on that semester. They spend time thinking about and debating others’ ideas. And they work through their own ideas by discussing them with each other and trying to articulate them in writing, placing them within the context of others’ ideas. My students don’t necessarily “do something” with every idea they encounter or have. Sometimes an idea is worth talking about. Sometimes it’s worth writing about. Sometimes it’s not. But each idea they encounter or entertain makes an impact, however microscopic, on their intellectual development.

I do eventually ask my students to take action on the ideas they’ve been grappling with. I ask them to solve a problem or ask and answer a question or create an artifact that will help spread their ideas to others (á la TED). But I want them to spend a lot of time thinking about the problem or question or artifact. I want them to develop a mental relationship with an idea before they publicly announce the nature of that relationship through a physical action.

I’m wondering how much of this obsession with observable actions has to do with the very industrialized model that education reformers claim to want to demolish. One of the first things that you learn to do as an education major is to write a learning objective. Everything that happens in the classroom must have an objective. In order to be able to assess whether or not that objective has been met, the result must be measurable. Therefore, it must result in an observable action. But no instrument can measure an idea. And no teacher can assess intellectual engagement.

Like the most fine and rarified and transcendent things in life, the life of the mind is invisible and unquantifiable. It goes on within us and, when it encounters an idea worth spreading or acting on, without us, as well.

By all means, let’s encourage our students to create things. But let’s also show them the beauty of ideas, even those that never result in a tangible response. They can learn something from those, as well.