Discussions in online courses are both an opportunity and a problem. They are an opportunity for students to think more deeply about topics and respond to opposing views without the pressure of having to come up with a response on the spot in front of others. Yet they are often the bane of students who complain that their online discussions are just an exercise in repeating what others have said.
As I discussed in an earlier article, one reason for poor discussions is that discussion prompts often ask for mini-essays rather than actual discussion. But another problem is that faculty rarely model what they want out of student discussions. At heart, discussion is about helping students learn how to think like a practitioner in the field. As a philosophy instructor, I teach students how philosophers think, just as an engineering instructor teaches how engineers think. But instructors often fail to model that thinking, expecting students to pick it up on their own, and then lament that students post superficial or perfunctory posts. Beyond merely stating ground rules, instructors can model what they want out of online discussions through pre-discussion examples and intra-discussion prompts.
In philosophy classes, I want students in my online discussions to develop and defend positions using reasons and arguments that they believe their audience will accept as well as to critique other’s positions by examining the strength of the arguments and reasons for it. The goal is to equip students with the skills to distinguish truth from falsity and to contribute to public discourse on topics such as immigration. I also want to teach them to never attack a person, only a position.
I model this by providing some examples of good and poor discussion posts and describe why they are good or poor. For instance, to demonstrate that I do not want to censor views but rather have students give reasons for them, I tell students to imagine that the topic is whether immigrants to the US should be required to learn English. I then provide an example of a poor posting on the topic:
I am sick of hearing about Mexicans sneaking across the border into the US, and now everything needs to be in Spanish and English. I need to sit through a Spanish and English version of questions on phone menus and can’t understand people in a lot of parts of the country. Just learn some English!
Here I explain that the problem is not that the person has this viewpoint. Rather, the problem is that the post attacks a particular group rather than addresses the issue at hand. It also does so by using subjective feelings rather than reasons that others might support. I then offer an example of a better posting that supports the underlying position in a more philosophically rigorous way:
I would argue that anyone who immigrates to another country has an obligation to learn the language of that country. If I move to France, I would have an obligation to learn French. The French would not have an obligation to learn English. For one, my learning French shows respect for the country as I am a guest of that country. Two, French is needed to function in that country. In an emergency I need to understand others and others need to understand me. Not having this ability can endanger myself and others in the country.
I then explain why this posting is preferable to the former one. It not only moves the discussion from singling out a particular group to immigration in general (the real topic) but also avoids the appearance of prejudice. It uses an analogy to a non-hot-button example, allowing the general position to be debated without baggage. Finally, it provides new insight into an issue and moves the debate to reasons that can be discussed rationally and intelligently.
Instructors can also model what they want out of student discussion through their posts within discussion forums. For instance, I have students debate the following question as a segue into moral theory:
Imagine that you are stopped at a red light at 2:00 a.m. You look in all directions and see no other cars. Do you stay or go through the light? Why or why not?
This is a much better prompt than something like “Explain the two major moral theories and provide a strength and weakness of each.” That calls for a mini-essay and does not invite discussion, whereas I want students to debate topics using their own thinking, not research. I can then connect the moral theories we later examine to the reasons they give to defend their position, demonstrating that the moral theories they are learning are already at the heart of their moral reasoning.
Let’s imagine that a student replies,
I would go through to get home earlier. Why wait?
As with pre-discussion modeling, I want to sharpen students’ thinking by forcing them to express their views in general terms that others can accept and debate. I often do that by asking the student to clarify or reframe their comment. Here I might respond,
I think you are saying that it is OK to go through the light because you would benefit and nobody would be harmed. Is that your position?
The student will likely agree and through this exercise see how to express the principle that underlies her comment. By repeatedly asking these rephrasing questions students start to see how to think and express themselves in more philosophical terms.
I can then advance the discussion by asking,
For those who would go through the light, would you be in favor of others doing the same thing? What about making a law that anyone can do this?
Nearly all students who say they will go through the light also say that they would not want others to do the same, which is a perfect segue into Kant’s moral philosophy. Getting there through their own pre-philosophical intuitions about right and wrong sets students up to see Kant’s relevance later on.
Of course, not all subjects are geared toward teaching philosophical thinking. An art history instructor will likely look to model a different type of thinking. But the point is that if faculty are going to get productive discussions from students, they need to model the sort of thinking and postings they want.
To sign up for weekly email updates from The Teaching Professor, visit this link.