Written discussion is one of the ways in which teachers can assist students in building camaraderie within the course. Shy students, students with low processing speed, students with facial recognition issues, students with high anxiety levels, students with speech delays, and so on can feel especially isolated. Having written discussions helps give students a low-key way to get to know each other, gradually, over the course of the year. This is especially important for students with social anxiety or learning issues who “freeze” when put on the spot in a live discussion. In fact, by the end of the year, many students say the written discussion questions are a favorite part of the course.
Students should discuss academic content as it relates to the student and our wider society. Giving structured feedback increases student learning.[i] Therefore, in these discussions, teachers can introduce topics, attempt to create some reflection about the material, and try to provoke some deep thinking. Writing is a natural way to include elaboration and recitation in the class, which is one of the main ways that students can learn material.[ii] However, I do not ask students to assess peers because they often reinforce wrong ideas and bad habits. Disagreement is fine, as long as it’s polite.
One of the hardest parts of teaching is focusing a student’s attention while online. It is very easy for students who are taking online courses to “space out” of the course. Students often have very busy schedules, with multiple competing demands. By requiring them to attend to the course at least three days a week, teachers increase student success because students have less opportunity to put the course on the back burner.
These online, written discussions build skills for engaging in Socratic discussion, or collaborative learning.[iii] Every day, adults are fired for displaying poor manners on the Internet. Throughout the class, teachers can ask students to be polite and respectful of one another. Teachers can require students to ask thoughtful questions and collaboratively engage in a search for reflective answers. Even in content area classes, teachers can help create an engaged citizenry, who as Robert Pondiscio puts it, “are able to advocate thoughtfully and passionately for their ideas without demonizing those they disagree with.”[iv] Finally, by creating assignments that incorporate effective discipline through teaching skills and helping students take responsibility for their actions, teachers can increase equity in the online classroom.[v]
The online, written discussions are not meant to be difficult assignments. At the middle school level, teachers should be looking for perhaps 15 minutes worth of work on Monday, and another 10 to 15 minutes on Wednesday. The rewards of those 20-30 minutes outweigh the inconvenience.
[i] (Clark & Mayer, 2016)
[ii] (Brown, Roediger III, & McDaniel, 2014)
[iii] (Clark & Mayer, 2016)
[iv] (Shaughnessy, 2013)
[v] ( The Aspen Institute Education & Society Program, 2018)