Since it’s been a couple weeks since my last post, there’s too much to recap in one post, so I’ll address discussion board developments now, then synchronous sessions, and collaboration in future posts. What’s kept me away is that last week my grandmother passed away. It was peaceful and expected, and I’m glad she’s in a place without pain. She was a great and caring mother and indulgent grandmother. And she was a school treasurer in upstate New York for years and years before retiring to Florida with her husband.
One of my favorite recent memories with her was checking in on her twice daily while she was in a rehabilitation center. She was recovering from a stroke, and my mother, who is a retired nurse, would check in on her twice daily. Well, when my parents took a much needed scheduled vacation (booked and paid), I took over. I’m so thankful for that time there with her, even though the center gave me the heebie-jeebies. The reason? Just listening to her and enjoying our snippets of conversation.
At first, I was uncomfortable and awkward talking with her. Not only did I not know what to say, but also she wouldn’t remember what was said the previous day. I mostly asked questions and gave her brief updates about my life and my parents. Eventually, we fell into flexible scripts. Then, the one time I managed to steer our conversation away from the script was when I brought in an old photo album with pictures of her parents. She recognized them automatically, and she was able to discuss the people and the places. The photo album was crucial because it connected the moment to a time and a place with deep emotional resonance. That one thing changed our habitual script, and I’m grateful for it.
But what can this talk of scripts and photo albums tell us about students’ discussions and discussion boards?
How does this connect to what I’ve learned by tinkering with the student discussion board?
If you’ve managed or facilitated a student discussion board, you are familiar with the scripts students use when posting replies:
- “Great job!”
- “This is really interesting!”
- And if we’re lucky, “I like how you talk about X.” Where x is equal to some detail from the post.
I’m taking graduate level courses online, and I see the same:
I completely agree with your comment about students who use metacognition allowing teachers to give feedback more easily. If a student doesn’t know what they are thinking, it makes it very difficult for the teacher to know what they are thinking and provide feedback. Great point!
Granted, it’s a little more advanced and post-specific, but the formula is the same:
Validation + detail + elaboration + “Great____!”
Here’s an example from 8th grade:
Excellent work! I have to agree that this story does seem very mysterious. I can’t wait to read it for myself.
And here’s one from high school:
Using the credit card only for emergencies is a good idea [Name]! I said that I will get a credit card when I turn 18 because it is very convenient but I just need to be careful!
The pattern varies a little, but most of the elements remain.
Change the Script
As I’ve said before, the discussion board facilitator can explicitly change the script. First, you can have students end their original post with a question to prompt others to respond to a specific aspect or part of their post. You can see examples here and here.
The other way to change the script is to explicitly say how they should reply. Give them a few choices about the content: text, image, audio, or link. One suggestion is if you have students reply with a picture, ask them to explain their choice or to give the image a caption. If your reply asks them to comment on a specific aspect of the post, be prepared for the student who replies to a post with, “Since you didn’t have X, I couldn’t reply Y.”
A good resource for higher order sentence stems is Jim Burke’s sentence starters and sentence frames (page 12 of the .pdf) from his “Teaching the Essentials” workshop. Burke categorizes each starter and frame by cognitive strategy or response.
Beyond the Script
When students are ready, push them to go beyond the script. Just how the photo album helped me move beyond the familiar dialogue with my grandmother, a digital object may have the same impact in the discussion. I’m still tinkering with the different impacts student-produced content has on the discussion board. So far, I’ve tried 3 different things:
- In August, after the initial DB post, I had students add student collages.
- In early October, students contributed to a PowerPoint on poetry terms.
- In November, I asked students to make a Sway.
Each of these projects asks students to make something for their original post instead of answering questions or offering a reflection. Unfortunately, it’s easy to fake or fudge true reflection. By the time students hit 8th grade, most students know what the teacher wants to hear, and they can post accordingly. Also, if the discussion board topic is question based, then some students will simply answer the questions as though they were short answers questions on a test. By asking students to make something, the post not only encourages reflection, but it also provides an artifact of learning. Students not only reflect on the content but to synthesize it. Compare these two posts:
Furthermore, when you ask students to make something, those who do are more invested in the DB topic. The only evidence I have seen of this is in the replies they write (or don’t write). Either they will reply noting the absence, “I couldn’t reply because you didn’t make a Sway,” or they will only reply to the posts that meet the criteria. Since Brightspace allows you to preview the post, most students don’t even view the posts without the criteria.
What I would like to research next is whether students view their own posts more to see what people say about their work.
Making it Meaningful
Having students create something automatically makes the DB post more meaningful for the student, but it should also be meaningful for the class. The reason why the photo album got my grandmother talking was it connected with her life. I brought the object, and she valued it. For students’ projects in the discussion board to have a similar impact, the student-made objects (or even found objects) must also connect with the class.
This is hard to manage.
Not only are students physically separated, but they rarely open themselves up in a class, and it is difficult to form a community within a competency-based, asynchronous course structure.
However, I think by having students create more and personalize their posts and replies, students begin to show a little more personality. The Sway DB was the students’ last DB post, so my steps for next semester will be to try to have students create things that connect emotionally or intellectually with the class.