December 9th, 2015

Influencing How Students Discuss Content


classroom discussion

When students are talking with each other about content, most of us worry, at least a little bit. We’ve all heard less-than-impressive exchanges. For example, four students are in a group discussing three open-ended questions about two challenging readings. It’s less than five minutes since they started, but they’re already on question three. Or, they’re working with clickers, supposedly exchanging ideas about a problem, but the group has already decided on one member’s solution. She just happens to be a student who regularly answers in class and is almost always right.

When students are discussing content, teachers tend to feel powerless. If a good, open-ended, provocative question or challenging problem doesn’t raise the caliber of the exchange, is there anything that will? We can prowl around the classroom and maybe ask a few pointed questions, but it still feels like the content is up for grabs.

However, are we as powerless as we feel? I have been reading through two long, detailed studies done in physics classes. In the findings are two examples of ways teachers can exert some control over student discussions of content.

Teaching Professor Blog The studies were conducted in large, introductory physics courses where teachers were implementing peer instruction (à la Eric Mazur), with students using clickers to report their solutions. The researchers hypothesized that how faculty interacted with students influenced the norms that governed how students interacted with each other. Using a research design that included multiple classroom observations, the researchers tracked a variety of teacher actions that were relevant to faculty-student interaction and student-student interaction. Using data derived from their observations, they positioned each teacher on two continua: somewhere between low and high on faculty-student collaboration, and between low and high on how they promoted student-student collaboration. Then they surveyed students to discover their perceptions about peer interaction in the course. They found that student perceptions mirrored the observations of faculty. So, in courses where the instructor was on the low side of the two continua, students reported, among other things, being less comfortable communicating with the instructor and with each other.

It’s a complicated research design and not easily explained in a blog post without some oversimplification. But the bottom line is pretty straightforward: How these teachers communicated with students influenced how the students felt about the interactions that occurred in that class. It’s really about modeling. If we want students questioning each other; presenting different ideas, options, or solutions; explaining what they’re proposing; and respectfully disagreeing, then that’s how we need to be communicating with them, not just now and then, but regularly, for a significant portion of every period.

The researchers were also interested in whether students were “answer-making” or “sense-making” in their interactions. In the answer-making mode, students “are usually trying to come to the explanation that they think the teacher wants to hear rather than coming to an explanation that makes sense to the student.” (p. 15) And here researchers found something interesting. In some of these courses, the clicker questions counted for extra credit, with correct answers counting more than incorrect ones. In another course, clicker questions also counted for extra credit, but whether the answer was right or wrong didn’t matter. In that course, the instructor also emphasized reasoning, telling students to share their reasons with each other and asking for their explanations in whole-class discussions. Students in that course rated sense-making as more important than answer-making.

Because equal extra credit wasn’t the only factor, we can’t say that it made a difference, but it was part of what changed how students discussed answers. It’s natural to think that right answers are worth more than wrong ones, but it’s also easy to imagine how not having to worry about what an answer is worth might change the discourse in some productive ways.

So, we shouldn’t feel that student interaction is beyond our control. In this case, teacher actions influenced how students talked about the content, and a simple design decision set parameters that reshaped the discussion of answers. Let’s use these examples to think of other ways we might positively influence student discussions of content.

References: Turpen, C. and Finkelstein, N. D., (2009). Not all interactive engagement is the same: Variations in physics professors’ implementation of Peer Instruction. Physical Review Special Topics – Physics Education Research, 5, 1-18.

Turpen, C. and Finkelstein, N. D., (2010). The construction of different classroom norms during Peer Instruction: Students perceive differences. Physical Review Special Topics – Physics Education Research, 6, 1-22.

  • This is really interesting especially after just concluding a term in which I used Team-Based Learning in a first year biology course. With this teaching strategy I give points for students correctly answering in-class applications of their out-of-class readings. At the beginning of term it seemed to me that students were simply discussing who chose choice A, B, C or D whereas just after midterm the quality of the discussion seemed to improve markedly after I explained and modeled to them during the previous weeks how to share their understanding to arrive at a reasoned answer within their team. Also, I explained that the best way to learn something it is to teach it or explain it to someone else. Students picked up on this and started having better discussions in trying to solve the in-class Apps. But near the end of term the student teams started to revert back to a surface discussion of who chose A, B, or C without a very deep discussion of why those choices were made. My senior student assistants in the course observed to me that their sense is that students were no longer keeping up with the reading assignments due to end of term burnout.

    Which is a long winded way of saying that I find it interesting that these studies that Maryellen is highlighting found that student discussion seemed to improve if in-class Apps were graded for attempts rather than for correctness. I have to think about how I could implement this in my own class while also providing incentive for students to continue studying outside of class. Perhaps the peer evaluations at the end of term which determine their team-mates contribution to their team's learning and thus the proportion of the team mark they have earned is sufficient incentive. Maybe I don't have to police this myself and instead should rely more on students to police themselves and thus give each other the incentive to learn for the good of the team.

    There is more here to think about. Thanks for stirring the pot.

  • Michael Ross

    Seeking 2 or more individuals who are passionate about teaching and who arn’t afraid to work as part of a team in the online “Teaching for Understanding” program. The Graduate School of Education at Harvard University is offering a drastic reduction in tuition for those who form teams of 3 or more.

    For a more detailed explanation of the program please follow the link to the GSE. If interested in forming a team, please feel free to send me a private message so we may talk and ultimately get started.


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