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Discussions 101

Posted Wednesday, May 7th, 2014 Tagged:

Benefits of Online Discussions

Online discussion boards offer many benefits to the teaching and learning process. They can be a great way to get to know one another and build a strong sense of respectful community. Many students prefer the online discussion board over a classroom discussion because it allows time to develop a more thoughtful, reflective, and organized response. Students who might otherwise “blend in” with a face-to-face class tend to blossom in online discussions where they sense more freedom to express their opinions. And, when using the discussion tool within the LMS (Desire2Learn), there will be a record of the discussion.

Purposes of Online Discussions

Likewise, there are a variety of purposes that can be addressed with discussion boards, such as: relational purposes (i.e. icebreakers), instructional purposes (i.e. point/counterpoint; to meet stated objectives or content specific topics), reflective purposes (i.e. role playing, brainstorming), or cooperative purposes (i.e. polling, peer review, group work). Whatever the purpose, discussions provide an avenue for active learning within online and hybrid courses. The advantages are also available to supplement face-to-face courses.

Active Learning & Teaching Through Discussions

Learning is about catching the concept. Active learning includes: concise postings, dialogue, reflection, netiquette, discussions connected to lived experiences, setting up discussion with good discussion starters, and continuing discussions with solid questions and teaching.

Role of the Instructor in Online Discussions

The role of an instructor within online discussions is very important! Your role in online discussions is to provide a safe, trusted environment where students’ thinking skills can be improved. As a facilitator, there are several best practices to keep in mind.

Establish trust within your course.
Respect age, diversity, and cultural differences.
Understand your learners.
Provide clear expectations.
Encourage critical thinking.
Ask good questions that: start, refocus, clarify, verify, narrow the focus, or support the discussion.
Provide focus to keep to a particular point or concept.
Start where the student is.
Assess both quality and quantity of student posts.
Participate in the discussion with students.
Do not dominate the discussion or allow others to.
Model what you want students to do.

Setting Clear Expectations

As mentioned, online discussions can serve a variety of purposes. Regardless of discussion type, instructors should establish and communicate what their expectations are for students. Establishing a rubric will help you clarify your expectations and expedite the grading process. Some guidelines to consider are:

Length requirement/word count of original posts
Deadline for posting
Length/word count for peer replies
Deadline for replying to peers
Number of peer replies
Spelling & grammar expectations
Quality expectations (i.e. “I agree” is not a sufficient reply)

Examples of BAD Discussion Forum Questions

In your family, describe how the mother and father are treated differently by the children.

This prompt assumes knowledge about a student’s family background. Even if the instructor knows something about a person’s family history, he should not exploit that or draw attention to it in the discussion.

This an interesting discussion. You shy people need to weigh in now.

Is everyone who posts after this going to be labeled as shy now? What value does the comment bring to the discussion?

What did you learn about systems management from watching American Idol last night?

Again this questions makes assumptions about a student’s personal interests.

What do the non-Christians in our group think of Christopher Stone’s essay on Generation X?

This question immediately creates a sense of “us” and “them” between Christians and non-Christians and violates the best practices of establishing trust and respecting diversity. It also does not bring focus or support to the discussion.

Examples of GOOD Discussion Questions

Provide an example of how you recently exhibited one of your strengths and how your strengths might help you make a team more effective in achieving a goal.

This prompt (relating to the Strengths Finder test), opens an opportunity for the student to share a personal insight that she is comfortable with, without making assumptions.

The character Marcellus says, late in Act I, that “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (1.4.90). That statement is a MAJOR theme of the entire play. And it becomes a theme with which we can identify, because we can look around our own nation and see “rottenness” of one kind or another. Chinua Achebe, in his 1960′s Nigerian novel, described it as “things fall apart.” And it is like the play Oedipus the King: Things are rotten; they are falling apart.

Pick out one thing that demonstrates this “rottenness” in Hamlet’s Denmark. Pick any example you can find in Act I of things NOT being the way they should be in a healthy society. Cite the example and explain why it illustrates “rottenness.”

This discussion prompt is very specific to the goals and content of the course. It is focused on the student’s ability to analyze dramatic text and support their analysis with evidence from that text.

The role of the quizzes is to be thought provoking rather than definitive. They will also cause you to begin to examine yourself as you continue in a leadership role. As the prompt stated, you should also look for areas that need improvement. While you said you could make improvements, you did not indicate what areas you felt needed work. Your peers would be able to make suggestions if given a specific area.

Here, the instructor has responded to a student’s discussion post. She offers clarity about the purposes of an assignment, explaining in terms that relate to the student’s interest. However, she also asks the student to expand on his original post, gently pointing out that area where he didn’t completely answer the original prompt and why that was important to the class discussion overall.

For Further Reading

Blended Learning: Adding Asynchronous Discussions to Your F2F Classrooms

Mastering Online Discussion-Board Facilitation by TeacherEase (PDF), available from Edutopia


I haved changed how I view classroom technology.

Posted Wednesday, April 16th, 2014 Tagged:

A special guest blog by Kristyn Caldwell,
University Pathways Instructor

Read the rest of this entry »


Meeting students where they are: Assessing for learning

Posted Tuesday, February 11th, 2014 Tagged:

A special guest blog by
Hannah R. Fishburn, Visiting Professor of Spanish

We have all heard that the best teachers “meet the students where they are” and cater well to individual needs and learning styles. This can be a daunting task, and raises the question, “Well, how do I know where they are and what their learning style is?” This article will attempt to give a very brief answer to these questions, as well as a few tips and examples.

Pre-learning assessment

We all struggle with knowing where students are coming from and what they already know. This can make designing units and lesson plans very challenging, as we feel like we are taking a shot in the dark. Since college classrooms contain students of varied abilities and backgrounds, instructors are tasked with collecting student learning data that will guide them toward good instructional decisions. This, as with everything, can be as simple or as complex as the curriculum demands.

In some classes, I’ve used pre-tests with unit-specific sections to help students identify areas of strengths and weaknesses. Students were taught how to interpret the data from their pretest, and given extra help on areas of weakness. When assessment precedes the teaching of a concept, the instructor can design a more effective unit for the class as a whole and for each individual. While this is a little more complicated, it’s one of those strategies in education that I see as an investment. Students who enter a course with misconceptions or gaps in their learning will eventually require more help – the earlier, the better for everyone.

exit ticketA much simpler method that I like to use is an “exit ticket.” Simply save a few minutes at the end of class to preview the following class meeting with a few simple questions. Students can write their responses on a slip of paper and have to hand it to you before exiting the room. For example, a professor can ask questions about students’ prior understanding of a topic, their exposure to it, and any questions they may already have about it. This helps you to design an engaging lecture that addresses misconceptions, answers questions (many of which students are too shy to ask in a classroom settings), and does not waste time repeating concepts that students have already mastered. Most importantly, it gives us a reality check of where students stand, helping us to avoid skipping ahead and subsequently leaving harmful gaps in student learning. It also gets students excited about the next class meeting, which I believe really helps with student attendance.

Formative assessment

Typically when we think of assessment, we are thinking of the traditional assessment of student learning (known as summative assessment). Since these assessments are usually done at the end of the unit, the results do not have a lot of impact on the teaching of the tested concepts. They do typically have a heavy impact on students’ individual grades.

In contrast, formative assessment is assessment for learning. These assessments usually carry little to no grade weight, and may even be anonymous or not recorded. The methods can range from in-class discussions to pop quizzes to students writing the main points of the lecture on a slip of paper. The purpose is to give feedback to both students and teachers on what needs improvement before the higher-stakes testing takes place. Students will learn areas of weakness and be able to step up the study habits or seek extra help. Professors will know where the class stands and be able to adjust instruction, assignments, test dates, and even test content accordingly.

You can be as high-tech or as simple as you want with formative assessment. Our instructional technology staff can get you set up with the Turning Point software, where students can answer questions in class and the data appears instantaneously on your computer and / or the projection screen. If instantaneous survey results are not conducive to the lesson or your teaching style, you can collect quizzes, surveys, or short writings to mull over in your office before the next class. Regardless of the method, the purpose is to get (and give) feedback that allows students and professors to adjust study habits and instruction before the summative assessment takes place.

Differentiated instruction

This term intimidates some, because it sounds like having to do our job multiple times. The simplest way I can describe it is to first acknowledge that the student body is diverse, and then find ways to vary instruction to best reach them. This applies to assignments, activities and assessments. You can offer multiple options for a project, all of which accomplish the targeted learning objective. When repetition fits in a presentation or lecture, try to present the material in ways that apply to visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners.

One thing I have used in the past is a learning styles inventory, which students can take to determine which learning style best describes them. Teachers can use the data from their classes to steer their classroom time and assignment design, and students can learn a lot about how to be efficient and effective with their study time.

Faculty Collaboration

While this entry was pretty specific to a few teaching strategies, I have one very general piece of advice to share with my friends and colleagues: collaborate, collaborate, collaborate! We all have unique gifts and talents, and unique struggles. We all have days when we feel like our classroom time went well, and some when the blank stares and chaotic activities (that had seemed so clear in our head) haunt us. This institution is blessed with so many gifted individuals, and there is absolutely to shame in turning to a colleague and saying, “How do you make sure students are learning before giving a test?”, “Could you come watch my lecture and give me tips on how to make it more engaging?” or “What technology have you found effective for group projects?”

The best teachers are great thieves, really – they seek out people who have more experience, creativity, or time on their hands and take their ideas to use in their classroom. And since imitation is the greatest form of flattery, I have never met an educator who objected to this sort of thievery. We owe it to the students to be the best we can, and we can certainly learn infinitely more when we combine our decades of experience and our unique talents.

Special note

I’d like to thank Hannah for taking time from her busy schedule to share these valuable tips and suggestions. I’d also love to hear from more of you, our faculty at Greenville College, about your favorite methods for instruction and assessment. Post a comment to share with your colleagues.


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