This past week, I was sitting with some colleagues eating lunch, and I mentioned the great class discussion one of my classes had just had. I didn’t tell them this part, but it was so good that I had trouble steering them where I wanted them to go, even though they were still talking about really good ideas. At one point, a student said something that I definitely didn’t agree with, but I didn’t even need to respond, as several other students did instead. It felt like a real conversation.
When I mentioned to my peers a couple of the students who had spoken, they were surprised. It’s clear those students don’t talk in other classes. I then had to admit that those students didn’t talk without my making them do so. I didn’t cold call on them, as that has long bothered me. Instead, I had set them up to have something to say in class, so they could have something prepared to say.
We use Moodle, which is similar to Blackboard and other such course software. I use it so students can see their grades at any given time, which has cut down on the number of end-of-semester complaints significantly, and I put up some readings there they can’t access any other way. But in the past few years, I’ve started using the forums to have students comment on reading before coming to class. I began using them for exercises in a poetry writing course, then transitioned to these comments in a 400-level course.
The demand is not great on students, as they only have to write 150-250 words on what they read for the day, and the burden isn’t heavy on me, either, as I can read through them and score them in about 15 minutes or so the morning of class. I take notes on a post-it of who said what, and I then use those comments to provoke class discussion. Sometimes, in the middle of a class, instead of making a point myself, I’ll call on someone who I know said something along the same lines in their post for the day. Since they’ve already written it, they’re more comfortable sharing their thoughts, and I know what I’m going to get.
I’ve tried other methods for this that didn’t work as well. In 300-level classes, students write one-page papers every week and a half or so, and I once tried using those to guide class discussion. I would call on a student and ask him/her to tell what the paper was about, then use that to springboard off of. When I talked with students a few weeks into the semester, they felt that such an approach constrained discussion rather than encouraged it. There were other topics they wanted to discuss that didn’t fit with what they had written. They were right. I hadn’t known that was the problem, but I did know that discussion did not go well.
Last semester, I tried using note cards, as I was trying to move away from the online system. My class last fall complained about the amount of time they spent on Moodle, given that several of us in the department were using it. I had a small class (12 students), so I thought that would be a good time to experiment with the note cards. They handed them to me at the beginning of class, and I would quickly look through them before we started. I seldom used them in class discussion because I just didn’t have time to process them in the few minutes before class began. I need the time Moodle posts give me to think through their comments and organize my thoughts around these new thoughts.
No matter what system one uses, though (some people use freewriting at the beginning of class, for example), having students put something down in writing before coming to class helps them think about the material more deeply than they would otherwise. Having those thoughts before we walk into class helps make our discussions much richer and deeper.