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Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Preparing for Fall Teaching – Discussion Boards 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.  Posts this week will focus on the second step, which is designing assessment & engagement techniques for these new learning environments. 

Most assessment and engagement tools that people are talking about now are relatively familiar for most law professors.  We know how to check individual students’ comprehension in class, oversee discussions, and facilitate group work.  We just need help adapting these familiar techniques for physically distanced or remote courses.  Discussion boards, however, are different. Most law faculty have never used discussion boards, and my guess is that most of us have a pretty negative view of them.  And yet they seem quite prevalent in online courses, so I think many of us might be wondering if we should use them this fall and, if so, how we can use them effectively.

Should we use discussion boards?

I don’t claim to be an expert here, and I’ll invite anyone who has been teaching remotely for a long time to correct me, but my sense is that discussion boards are most helpful for asynchronous courses.  In asynchronous courses, it can be much more difficult to have students interact with the material and each other.  Done well (see tips below), discussion boards can be a great tool to help with these pedagogical challenges.   

I’ve been a little more skeptical of them in primarily synchronous courses, but I’m starting to wonder if they might have a role.  As I’ve mentioned in prior posts, I often have students complete a brief assignment before class to make sure that they understand the reading.  Usually these assignments are in Blackboard with a short quiz or in a Google Doc that only I can see, but perhaps there is value in having the class be able to see each other’s answers, especially once they have submitted their own answers.   Alternatively, building off an earlier tip to build in time for pre-discussion reflection, I can also imagine using discussion boards to get the students thinking about more complex issues from the reading.  Their comments in the discussion board could then serve as the foundation for later (hopefully more robust) discussions in a synchronous class session. 

How can we use discussion boards effectively?

I took an online course this summer that used discussion boards pretty effectively.  Here are some tips from that experience.

Determine the objective of each discussion thread.  Not all discussion threads are created equal.  Be thoughtful about the purpose of each thread.   There are at least four different types of discussion board threads:

  1. Introduction Do you want students to introduce themselves to each other or get to know each other better?
  2. Initial Engagement. Do you want students to engage with the material before class to ensure that they show up to class prepared?
  3. Application. Do you want students to apply what they have learned to new situations, perhaps after an initial class session or video on the material?
  4. Extension. Do you want students to take what they have learned and extend it into new areas or integrate it with other learning?

Once you know the goal of the thread, you can craft your prompt with this goal in mind.  Of course, you can switch between goals from week to week, but it’s important not to try to have a single thread do too much.

Craft prompts that require engagement.  Unless you are only looking for a short answer response, try to use prompts that require your students to engage with the material.  Avoid prompts that call for objective responses or open-ended questions that ask students “What do you think about….”  Instead try prompts that start with action verbs such as “compare,” “explain,” “identify,” or “describe.”  You can also use prompts that require students to contribute information that hasn’t been contributed yet, so they have to dig into their classmates’ posts.  For example, in a Civil Procedure class, the prompt might say, “Choose a discovery tool that has not previously been used by one of your classmates and explain how the plaintiffs could use this tool to find evidence to support their claims.”  This only works if the groups are relatively small (see below).

Be clear about your expectations.  Many of our students have not used discussions boards in their classes, so you will have to be clear about what a good discussion post looks like.  Do you expect them to include citations to the reading?  Do they need to do outside research?  If you give them credit simply for posting or hitting the required number of words, you probably won’t get the thoughtful posts you want.  Similarly, if they are responding to another student’s post, let them know what a good response looks like.  For example, let students know that simply restating and/or affirming another student’s post isn’t enough to get credit.  Instead, tell them that they will be graded on whether they advance the discussion.  If students know up front that they have to move the discussion forward to get credit for their post, they will engage more with the material.  You can also use the 3CQ approach, which requires students to include two of the following elements in their response--compliment, comment, connection, and question--with each element including supporting details.

Use separate threads.  If you have a big class, consider creating separate threads for different groups of students.  In a 70 person class, you wouldn’t expect all of the students to be able to have a single in-person discussion that includes everyone, so you probably shouldn’t expect them to have a conversation on a discussion board that includes everyone either.  Instead, create 10 different threads and assign groups of 7 students to each one.  Most learning management systems allow you to place students into groups for discussion threads pretty easily.

Stagger initial and response posts.  Professors often ask students to make an initial post and then respond to at least one other student’s post, but this can lead to a flood of posts right before the deadline.  Instead set up two different deadlines – one for the initial posts and one for the response posts.  This is such a simple switch, but it makes a real difference in the quality of the posts. 

Consider whether to allow students to view others’ responses.  Most learning management systems allow you to decide whether students can see each other’s responses before they post.  The right approach likely depends on your objective.  If you want students to get to an objectively right or wrong answer, then you probably want to hide other responses, so they can’t see how other students approached the problem before they try it.  On the other hand, if your goal is to start a discussion, you need to allow them to see each other’s responses. 

Participate, but not too much.  A discussion board is one place where the professor can interact and build connections with students, so it is important for the professor to participate by responding to student posts and pushing the discussion in new directions.  On the other hand, if the professor participates too much, they can chill the discussion and keep students from talking to each other.  So carefully consider how much engagement you want to have with students in the discussion threads. 

Advanced Tips:  If you want to get fancy, here are a few advanced tips:

  1. Use the fishbowl approach to allow a small number of students to have a discussion while other students observe the discussion, similar to what you might do in class. Most learning management systems facilitate this technique.
  2. Consider alternative forms of responding. Rather than having students write out their responses, let them get creative.  Encourage them to post video responses or create a concept map or PowerPoint.
  3. Have them respond in role. Ask them to craft a discussion post from the perspective of a client or a judge or opposing counsel. 

In my next post, I’ll talk about group work in physically distanced and remote courses.    

Posted by Jessica Erickson on July 21, 2020 at 02:58 PM in Remote & Physically Distanced Teaching, Teaching Law | Permalink


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