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Influencing How Students Discuss Content

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.

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.