Maximizing the Potential of Online Classroom Discussions

About a week ago, a group of Twitterers from #stuvoice were discussing the merits and implementation of blogs in the classroom:

 

 

I have a quick point that I’d like to make about this:

Throughout my time in school, I’ve had several teachers assign blogs, discussion boards, or Twitter for a grade, where students would come online and discuss something related to the material we’ve learned in class. Some courses where this has occurred include:

  • English
  • Electricity and Magnetism
  • Leadership
  • Information Systems
  • Social Context of Business
  • Organizational Behaviour

Sometimes this method has been successful, sometimes not so much. And once in a while, our discussions have been truly amazing!

Different grading schemes have used, including:

  • A) As part of the student’s overall in-class participation grade (worth 15%): each post boosts your grade, but posting online is completely optional
  • B) 5% participation grade, segmented as its own assignment: 1% for posting regularly (at least once weekly), 4% on general effort (marked in a very loose manner)
  • C) 5% participation grade, but on a deductive grading scheme: you must post a “thoughtful and well planned-out” comment every week on a new given topic, and if you don’t you lose a mark

Usually the best discussions have occurred when there was a back and forth between 2 or more students, rather than having student just posting new, unrelated thoughts all of the time. Actually, I’d advocate having both: back-and-forth, and new ideas.

This best occurred in scenario B. In fact, I’ve found online classroom discussions  to work best in general under scenario B. And now I wonder, why? Well, there are two factors at play here, when it comes to how the teacher sets up the classroom discussion with respect to the class syllabus:

1. Whether or not the students are required to participate for their marks/

2. How tightly controlled the rules of the discussion are.

Put the two together, and we get this:

So, the “best” scenario corresponds to scenario B (described earlier),  The bottom left is scenario A, and the top right is scenario C.

Online classroom discussions work best, when the assignment is “structured, but not controlling.”

This structured, but not controlling philosophy is one that I believe in (as you’ll continue to see), and it was inspired by the Self-Determination theory that I described earlier. I believe that the structure “gets people going,” brings people together, and motivates them to work, but the autonomy gives people room to “be themselves,” and to remain intrinsically motivated and authentic as well.

And finally, as for the whole idea of doing online classroom discussions, I think it’s wonderful! These are the mediums that the youth of today understand, the tools that our society will be using in the future, and the “language” that we students speak. It allows for written, student-student interaction, rather than just student-teacher interaction.

Thinking points and possibilities:

1. Imagine if the teacher invited a “guest poster” to join the discussion and interact with the students! For instance, a current politician in a poli sci class, or the actual author of the book in an English class. The possibilities are endless!

2. In my experience, classroom discussions have always been kept within the 1 classroom full of students. Imagine if the 2 classes, from different parts of the country, interacted on the same discussion board. Imagine if students from different grade levels participated in the same discussions. Imagine if students continued their discussions even after the course was over, a year or two later.

 

Fostering Growth Mindsets in Students

Motivational psychologist Carol Dweck has spent most of her career looking at how a person’s views about intelligence affect their performance in a particular domain. Those who believe that intelligence is fixed, unchangeable, and innate have what’s known as a fixed mindset or fixed theory of intelligence, whereas those who believe that success and intelligence are a product of one’s efforts and hard work have what’s known as a growth mindset.

Applied to Goals

These mindsets influence many other things, such as what kind of goals people set. Those with fixed mindsets tend to set performance goals, where instead of bettering  themselves, they accomplish as task in order to prove how good their (fixed) level of talent/intelligence is. Alternatively, those with growth mindsets tend to set mastery goals, where they try to excel at the task itself, which in turn tends to be correlated with higher levels of intrinsic motivation.

Applied to Education

This paradigm applies very well to the field of education, especially in a system where students are constantly under pressure to succeed. Dweck has written a whole ton of papers about how her theory can help students to achieve in school, such as this one and this one. She has also done studies showing how students who have been taught about the differences between these mindsets, and who have been exposed to some introductory science about brain plasticity, have shown remarkable increases in their academic performance. Her team has even created a computer game called Brainology based on this model, where students can learn and apply this theory in a fun way.

Okay, so that’s the gist of it. (I didn’t want to go on, but check out the links if you’re interested!)
Now here are some of my own thoughts about this!

1. Parallels

It’s amazing to see just how many parallels there are between Dweck’s theory, and several other psychological theories. Check out this shmexy diagram I just made:

I’d definitely endorse the message that Dweck and others are promoting about intelligence. And it doesn’t even have to be through her computer program – anyone who is aware of it can go ahead and just teach it! I would recommend introducing the concept at the beginning of Grade 7 (or whenever high school starts). This would give students a great head start for their high school studies, and empower them to do well and to stay in school.

2. Self-Evaluation Grades

As for our grades, well, they currently give no indications to students one way or another. I admit this would be highly tricky to do.

For instance, I remember in elementary school, the back page of our report cards would always include a “self-evaluation” section. We didn’t know it at the time, but I fathom/hope that this was an attempt to incorporate this message of empowerment.

The problem? Most of us always gave ourselves the best marks possible on that report card, rather than being genuine and thoughtful in our self-evaluation. e.g. 1 1 1 1 1 1. (on a scale from 1-4). Of course, we made sure to bring down a few of the grades, to make others seem like we were being realistic. e.g. 1 1 2 1 2 1

Why? Because we were afraid of not impressing and pleasing our parents and teachers. Back then, we lived in a world where we had to constantly try to impress them with our work, day in and day out. We had what’s known as a contingent self-esteem. A sense of self that depended on how well we did in schools. This is especially bad in certain cultures, as this 60 minutes Australia report shows. So even when this new set of grades came out, we students were still stuck in the mindset of our regular grades because they were not explained properly.

So what needs to be done here? I say, let’s beexplicit with our students about what we’re actually trying to do here. Like Dweck and her team are doing. And in the process, we can show students a neat lesson in psychology.

4. There’s this unfortunate prevailing notion in our culture that endorses a fixed mindset. For some reason, students always like to say, “oh, he’s so smart” or, “I’m not smart enough for this class,” etc. Now I’m not sure if this is a natural human thing, or a product of our educational system, but I’m guessing that it’s a combination of the two.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I actually do think that some people have certain innate qualities about them that give them advantages or disadvantages over others in many domains. But in most cases, I believe these differences can be overcome (or at least mitigated). I picture it like a running race, but where each runner starts off at a different distance away from the finish line. While you may be place farther back than someone else, the “race” isn’t over. Okay, so that’s my position… there’s actually a huge debate in the field of psychology about this, if you’re interested.

5. One way of changing at least one of the outcomes – whether or not students opt to challenge themselves – is by implementing yet another psychological concept – approach vs. avoidance. But I’ll get to that later! (Please nag me if I don’t get that post done soon!)