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Friday, July 17, 2020

Preparing for Fall Teaching – Discussion and Socratic Dialogue in Physically Distanced, Hybrid, and Remote Courses

This post is part of a series on preparing to teach in the fall.  For the other posts in the series, see here, and for the  five step approach that I am using, see here.  Over the next two weeks, I will focus on the second step, which is designing assessment & engagement techniques for these new learning environments. 

One of the biggest challenges professors face this fall is how to spark discussion and conduct Socratic dialogue in their courses.  Anyone who taught this spring knows that it is so much harder to get students talking over Zoom than in a traditional classroom.  There’s something about staring at a bunch of faces on a screen that makes people more hesitant to join in.  I’ve never tried to hold a discussion in a physically distanced classroom with everyone in masks and six feet apart, but I can’t imagine it will be any easier.  So how can we generate meaningful discussions, especially around difficult topics, when we are distanced from one another?

I don’t have any techniques that will magically erase these challenges.  It will be hard.  But I do have some tips that may help.  The key, I think, is setting the stage for the discussion in more deliberate ways. Consider the following strategies:

Reflect on your implicit norms.  As you look to build more opportunities for discussion into your courses, you might start by reflecting on the implicit norms of discussion in your courses. This article from the Chronicle is great on fostering discussions more generally, but it also unpacks the social norms around discussions in higher ed classrooms.  The article discusses two specific norms that you may recognize from your own classes:

  1. “Civil attention. In a typical classroom, students aren’t required to ‘pay attention,’ only to pay ‘civil attention.’ What that means: So long as students appear to be listening, they can expect that the professor won’t call on them unless they signal a willingness to participate. How do students demonstrate civil attention? By nodding their heads, taking notes, chuckling at the instructor’s attempts at humor, or making brief eye contact. And by the things they don’t do: sleeping, texting, whispering to classmates. Students who are paying civil attention aren’t necessarily listening: They may, in fact, be daydreaming or deciding on their lunch plans. They may be writing a paper for another course when they appear to be taking notes. But by paying civil attention, students perceive that they have met their obligation to the course and to you, the instructor. Engage in discussion? They see that as optional.
  1. Consolidation of responsibility. Regardless of class size, only a small number of students — typically five to eight — will account for 75 to 95 percent of the comments made in a discussion. It’s easy to be deceived into thinking that you helped facilitate a great discussion when, in reality, you had a great discussion with five students, while the majority were spectators. The ‘consolidation of responsibility’ norm means that a few students assume responsibility for most of the discussion.”

If you want to foster discussion in these new learning environments, you might start by analyzing whether these norms are present in your classes and whether you are willing to disrupt them.  If you are open to new norms, think specifically about the goals for your discussions.  What percentage of the class do you want to participate each class?  What types of participation count? 

Acknowledge the challenges.  Be candid about the difficulties with your students and discuss strategies to address them as a group. For topics that might be controversial or difficult, use class time to develop shared norms for these conversations. 

Direct the conversation more than you normally would.  In a physically distanced or remote classroom, you may need to use more direct prompts and follow-up questions.  For example, you might assign a discussion leader for each case or class.  Alternatively, you can assign panels so a group of students is officially on call for each class.  Practice active moderation by interrupting interrupters and making space for those who have not participated.  You might also try to amplify voices that may not otherwise be heard.  Professor Tiffany Atkins has a short article that provides some helpful tips on amplification in the classroom. 

Allow more pre-discussion reflection.  Give students time to think about the topic before starting the discussion.  You can do this in a number of ways.  In the simplest form, just give students a minute or two to think through their answer before asking for volunteers.  Or have them write down a few notes about the prompt first.   For deeper questions, you might give them more time to reflect on their thoughts.  For example, if you know the discussion will center on one or two specific questions, ask the students to reflect on these questions and write 1-2 paragraphs about them before class.  They can turn in these questions through Blackboard or a Google Doc.  In remote courses, you can send students into breakout groups and have them discuss the question on their own first, so they are then more comfortable then discussing the issue with the larger group.  In physically distanced courses, you might ask the students to discuss the issue with the person next to them first. 

Many professors are also worried about how to conduct Socratic dialogue in these new learning environments.  Socratic dialogue is more difficult in a physically distanced or remote classroom, although the reasons may have more to do with us than our students.  Socratic questioning can feel awkward for professors in the best of times, but it feels even more awkward when the students are behind screens or masks.  Personally, I am just more hesitant to call on students in these circumstances.  I don’t think I’m alone.  I’ve had several professors tell me that Socratic questioning “just doesn’t work” in these new settings.

But I think it can work.  We had professors here at Richmond Law who carried on their classes remotely just like they had before, calling on students and engaging in Socratic discussion over Zoom.  And in general, the students really liked it.  In evaluations, several students remarked at how much they liked the fact that class felt “normal.”  It may feel awkward to us to call on students who appear on a screen while in their apartments, but if we push through that awkwardness, we can recapture some of what we’re used to in traditional classrooms.  So I don’t think we need write off Socratic discussion entirely.

That said, we might want to think about how to use this method more effectively.  During this semester especially, we may want to soften our Socratic questioning.  Consider acknowledging the initial awkwardness, discussing with the class that it can feel a bit weird for everyone when they are called on but also explaining why you think it has pedagogical value.  You can also give students times when they know they are not on call, perhaps by assigning panels or providing clear rules on how and when students can opt out. 

I’ll end by saying that this discussion assumes that Socratic dialogue is a good thing.  As I’ve written elsewhere, I’m not sure it has as much pedagogical value as we assume.  Done right, it can lead to active learning, but we need to put in a lot of work to make sure that we are actually engaging all students using this approach.  I’ll leave that debate for another day though! 

In my next post, I will delve more into the topic of discussions in remote courses by providing some ideas on how to use discussion boards more effectively. 

Posted by Jessica Erickson on July 17, 2020 at 02:56 PM in Remote & Physically Distanced Teaching, Teaching Law | Permalink


Thank you Jessica for a very helpful series of posts!

Posted by: Anna | Jul 18, 2020 11:02:18 AM

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