Why discussion sucks (and what to do about it)

Students at colleges around the country are told to participate, but why?

Since the dawn of online classes, the goal of college professors has been to somehow duplicate the excitement of classroom discussion. With the advent of the Read-Write Web (Web 2.0) fifteen years ago, the threaded discussion forum became popular, and immediately the pattern was set.

We do what we’ve been told to do: create a great prompt, not a yes-no question or something too shallow. We want everyone to respond to it, reinforcing readings or other learning in the class. Then, because we want student-student interaction, each student is required to reply to at least two of their colleagues. The prompt-post-reply model has held.

Never mind that this is not the way discussion happens in a classroom. There may be a prompt thrown out by the professor, but only a few students answer, and only if their answers can be different. We might set up small groups to get students to talk, but if we’re experienced we know better than to just say “discuss”. And we usually intervene to advance the discussion or take it in another direction.

Never mind that we haven’t bothered to ask why we’re doing online discussion at all. It’s discussion. You’re supposed to do it. Or you have to do something. Many colleges require “student to student interaction” for all online classes. But no one explains why. It’s just assumed to be a Good Thing.

And yet the result is often appalling.

The problem

Most online discussions are absolutely worthless to read (from an instructor perspective) and worthless to do (from a student perspective). The eager students answer the questions first and fully. The others trail along just to finish and get the points. Every student knows the drill: post once, reply twice. Then leave as quickly as you can and do not return.

If the prompt is a question, however intricate, or a specific task (“post your thesis”), then once their first post is done, the student’s task has been completed. The only reason to reply to anyone else’s post is because the prof told you to. That’s not interaction. It’s mandatory politeness, like saying “how are you?” when you don’t really care.

“I agree, James,” they write, “I also think that slavery was bad.” Nothing really happening there mentally, I don’t think. And James likely won’t return to see the reply anyway. Why should he?

A twist on traditional discussion

I went as far as I could with the method, in an effort to increase participation. I achieved discussion somewhat successfully with my two-step approach. This involved starting with a prompt that did not require previous knowledge, and set up some kind of moral judgement to get people engaged. Questions like “was it right to drop the bomb on Hiroshima?” or “did the Confederacy have a point about states rights?” or “was slavery essential to the growth of the United States?” got students started.

After they had all emoted about the topic for the first half of the week, I posted “Take discussion from here”. I used big font and a color for my post, and it summarized what they’d said so far, naming names of students who had made good points. Then I asked different questions that seemed to follow from what they’d said, questions that relied on their reading and used reason (rather than emotion) to deal with the main issues. Their second post was a reply to mine and/or to each other, to conclude that week.

It worked, in a way. But many students, having given ill-informed opinions to start, didn’t bother to return for the real work in the second half.

Designing for necessity

Sometimes, there’s simply no need for conversation. You read (or look, or listen), you do the work, and you’re done. Discussion should only take place when it is necessary, whether in the classroom or online. There are two things that can make discussion necessary:

  1. If talking together is essential to work something out or to complete a task.
  2. If the product of the conversation is going to be used, applied, or figured out.

So we could design for necessity. Let’s say I’m teaching design, and I demand on the discussion board that each student design and post a different carnival ride. Once they have posted, they seem to have finished the task. There could be no reason to ask them to comment on two other students’ designs. But if the next task is to write a short paper contrasting three designs (yours and those of two other students), then the comments become preparatory for creating something.

Or we could do role play. The class is to be considered a committee-as-a-whole for determining which route across campus would be best for the architects to create as a footpath. What information should be gathered, and how? Once results have come in, how will the data inform the decision? The deadline is Thursday, because the architects need to break ground.

Or let’s take my two-step discussion technique, where I start with something ill-informed and emotional, and then we get informed in the second step. I could have made it better by making sure that the discussion was used somehow, through a formal assignment such as a paper or quiz. The conclusions we developed could have been summarized and used to inform individual work.

The rules

So my new rules for discussion would be:

  1. ensure that conversation is inherently necessary to the task or subject
  2. design so that each student would naturally post something different
  3. create something that applies or uses the results of the discussion

Otherwise, I’d say there’s no point.


2 thoughts to “Why discussion sucks (and what to do about it)”

  1. I would agree at the undergrad level, but my graduate courses are in most cases driven by dialogue. I use a dual grading system where half of their weekly grade is based on their post and half on the quality of their comments. And very few of my graduate students do the one post and two comments minimum.

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