Timing is Everything
Last week we talked about how designing some tension into discussions can yield a more engaging student experience. This is often my first suggestion when I hear from faculty that student discussions seem lacking. This week the inquiry centers around timing. Just like hosting a dinner party, timing the various course elements is critical when designing student interactions.
Structure the Discussion
Carrying on the analogy from last week, students need time to absorb and consume your course materials, lectures, readings, and content. They need even more time for their ideas to germinate and grow on that content before they put them out for display. Then, rather than students offering their ideas and arguments sporadically and intermittently, delineating the temporal boundaries of the presentation adds even more energy to the interaction.
Time to Think
One simple pattern for an online asynchronous discussion cycle is to have written responses to your discussion prompt due by the end of the day on Tuesday, then allowing students to discuss one another’s written responses Wednesday through Friday. This cycle gives the students Saturday through Tuesday to consume course content and develop their ideas. It also gives you, the instructor, an opportunity to read through student discussions and post a wrap up at the end of the discussion. One effective method is referred to as “summarizing and weaving” in this excellent article on creating meaningful online discussions. Saturday morning works well for a wrap-up, but anytime over the weekend is sufficiently timely.
These sorts of temporal boundaries focus the student experience and set expectations with regard to response participation. If the time window for initial posts and responses is too broad, it becomes like a painful dinner party with lots of awkward silences. Nothing kills conversational energy like an impassioned, articulate and well constructed post that nobody responds to for several days. Channelling the conversations of twenty to thirty students, even asynchronously, into three days of interaction should have the forums bursting with substantive interaction.
When to Discuss
Timing is equally important in face to face discussions. Make sure written responses to discussion prompts are due before the discussion occurs. To ramp up the pressure, you can randomly select students to feature for opening remarks around a given topic. To cool off the pressure, form teams around similar positions and then host a team-based debate or panel discussion.
Of course student discussions aren’t for all topics at all times. They are merely one engaging tool that can effectively promote evidentiary based reasoning and a constructivist learning environment. Designed with questions or prompts that are intentionally compelling, and with some careful planning devoted to the post and response cycle, there isn’t any reason that discussions can’t reward all with a bounty of learning outcomes.
Tools for synchronous communication: