November 23, 2014

Dialogue and discussion: critical for 21st century skills development

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Tutorial 2

Introduction

First of all, thanks to the numerous people who commented on  my earlier posts on Why Lectures are Dead, and on Learning Theories and Online Learning. These were previews of chapters for my open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age.

This feedback was particularly helpful, because several people commented that there are lots of different kinds of lectures. I fully accept that criticism, and although I did define ‘lecture’ quite narrowly in the actual post (some of the comments picked up quotes from the article in the form of tweets or LinkedIn comments that did not include the narrow definition I used.) That definition was really about lectures that were focused primarily or entirely on the transmission of knowledge. I have therefore changed the heading of that section in the book to ‘Transmissive Lectures.’

In the next section, I discuss another important method of teaching based on discussion and argument that reflects a more constructivist approach to teaching and learning. Here is the first draft.

Interactive lectures, seminars, tutorials and MOOCs

In this section, I will examine a number of different ways in which teaching can help develop conceptual knowledge. There is a particular emphasis on conceptual learning at a post-secondary level, but in recent years conceptual learning has become an increasing focus in the school or k-12 systems in many jurisdictions.

The theoretical and research basis for social learning

In the previous section, I wrote that research on lectures showed that:

‘in order to understand, analyze, apply, and commit information to long-term memory, the learner must actively engage with the material. In order for a lecture to be effective, it must include activities that compel the student to mentally manipulate the information.’

This is a cognitive approach to learning, but constructivists go beyond interaction between student and learning materials. They believe, as I wrote earlier, that:

‘individuals consciously strive for meaning to make sense of their environment in terms of past experience and their present state. It is an attempt to create order in their minds out of disorder, to resolve incongruities, and to reconcile external realities with prior experience. Problems are resolved, and incongruities sorted out, through strategies such as seeking relationships between what was known and what is new, identifying similarities and differences, and testing hypotheses or assumptions…knowledge is mainly acquired through social processes or institutions that are socially constructed.’

Researchers have identified a distinction, often intuitively recognised by instructors, between meaningful and rote learning (Asubel et al, 1978). Meaningful learning involves the learner going beyond memorization or surface comprehension of facts, ideas or principles, to a deeper understanding of what those facts, ideas or principles mean to them. Marton and Saljö, who have conducted a number of studies that examined how university students actually go about their learning, make the distinction between deep and surface approaches to learning (see, for instance, Marton and Saljö, 1997).

Students who adopt a deep approach to learning tend to have a prior intrinsic interest in the subject. Their motivation is to learn because they want to know more about a topic. Students with a surface approach to learning are more instrumental. Their interest is primarily driven by the need to get a pass grade or qualification.

Subsequent research (e.g. Entwistle and Peterson, 2004) showed that as well as students’ initial motivation for study, a variety of other factors also influence students’ approaches to learning. In particular, certain learning environments, such as an emphasis in the teaching on information transmission, tests that rely mainly on memory, and a lack of interaction and discussion, encourage surface approaches to learning, while a focus on analytical or critical thinking or problem-solving, in-class discussion, and assessment based on analysis, synthesis, comparison and evaluation tends to drive students more to a deeper approach to learning. It should also be noted that approaches to learning are not always consistent or stable, even for the same student in the same course. Nevertheless, the teaching environment is critical in establishing expectations and methods that are more likely to engage students and hence lead to more conceptual and deeper learning

In addition, others, such as Laurillard (2001) and Harasim (2010), have emphasised that academic knowledge requires students to move constantly from the concrete to the abstract and back again, and to build or construct knowledge based on academic criteria such as logic, evidence and argument. This in turn, it is argued, requires a strong teacher presence within a dialectical environment, in which argument and discussion within the rules and criteria of the subject discipline are encouraged and developed by the instructor or teacher. Laurillard calls this a rhetorical exercise, an attempt to get learners to think about the world differently.

Lastly, connectivist approaches to learning place heavy emphasis on networking learners, with all participants learning through interaction and discussion between each other, driven both by their individual interests and the extent to which these interests connect to the interests of other participants. The very large numbers participating means that there is a high probability of converging interests for all participants, although those interests may vary considerably over the whole group.

The combination of theory and research here suggests the need for frequent interaction between students, and between teacher and students, for the kinds of learning needed in a digital age. This interaction usually takes the form of semi-structured discussion. I will now examine the very wide range of ways in which this kind of learning is facilitated by educators.

Interactive lectures

Definition: An interactive lecture is a lecture where at least 25% of the time is taken up with questions and discussion from students and responses from the lecturer to points raised by students

Many lecturers deliberately design a large lecture experience to encourage interaction with and between students, even though the focus of the lecture is still mainly on information transmission, such as facts, concepts, procedures and ideas. The most common format is to allow at least 15 to 20 minutes at the end of the presentation for questions and discussion, where the instructor may well take the lead in putting questions to students and requiring particular students to provide a response, to get discussion going. However, the research suggests that a better way to ensure comprehension and the development of conceptual thinking is to break the session into small chunks of perhaps 10 minutes presentation, followed by five to ten minutes of questions and discussion.

© Center for Teaching and Learning, University of Washington, 2014

© Center for Teaching and Learning, University of Washington, 2014

More recently, instructors have started to record their lectures through lecture capture then use class time for discussion of the contents of the lecture. This model is called the ‘flipped’ classroom. Again, this is still a mainly transmissive way of teaching requiring students to respond to instructor-led presentation, and there are sometimes problems in getting students to view the lecture in advance of the class time. Clickers and Twitter back-chat channels are other ways in which technology has been used to increase student interaction.

Even interactive lectures can be criticised as being mainly behaviouristic, with a defined body of knowledge to be learned and assimilated by the student. Often discussion is cut short because ‘there is too much content to get through’ to cover the curriculum, and consequently students adopt surface rather than deep approaches to learning. Problems often appear later, when for instance students who need mathematical concepts and procedures in later engineering courses struggle because they have forgotten or been unable to conceptualise fully concepts, formulae and methods taught in earlier courses.

The main reason though why the interactive lecture is still so common is because it is one way to build some form of interaction into very large classes with 200 students or more. It should be noted though that even in interactive classes, it is unlikely that over the whole length of a thirteen week semester, more than ten per cent of the students will have the chance to ask a question or make a comment if the class size is large. (Research again has indicated that it tends to be the same ten or so students who always ask unprompted questions.)

Seminars and tutorials

Definitions:

seminar is a group meeting (either face-to-face or online) where a number of students participate at least as actively as the teacher, although the teacher may be responsible for the design of the group experience, such as choosing topics and assigning tasks to individual students.

tutorial is either a one-on-one session between a teacher and a student, or a very small group (five or less) of students and an instructor, where the learners are at least as active in discussion and presentation of ideas as the teacher.

Socrates and his student: Johann Friedrich Greuter, 1590: (San Francisco, Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts 

Socrates and his students: Painter: Johann Friedrich Greuter, 1590: (San Francisco, Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts)

Seminars can range from six or more students, up to 30 students in the same group. Because the general perception is that seminars work best when numbers are relatively small, they tend to be found more at graduate level or the last year of undergraduate programs, or anywhere where class size is around 25-30.

Seminars and tutorials again have a very long history, going back at least to the time of Socrates. Plato, the philosopher, was a student or follower of Socrates, although Socrates denied he was a teacher, rebelling against the idea common at that time in ancient Greece that ‘a teacher was a vessel that poured its contents into the cup of the student’. Instead, according to Plato, Socrates used dialogue and questioning ‘to help others recognize on their own what is real, true, and good.’ (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.) 

The format of seminars can vary a great deal. One common format, especially at graduate level, although similar practices can be found at the school/k-12 level, is for the teacher to set advance work for a selected number of students, and then have the selected students present their work to the whole group, for discussion, criticism and suggestions for improvement. Although there may be time for only two or three student presentations in each seminar, over a whole semester every student gets their turn. Another format is to ask all the students in a group to do some specified advanced reading or study, then for the teacher to introduce questions for general discussion within the seminar that requires students to draw on their earlier work.

Tutorials are a particular kind of seminar that are identified with Ivy League universities, and in particular Oxford or Cambridge. There may be as few as two students and a professor in a tutorial and the meeting often follows closely the Socratic method of the student presenting his or her findings and the professor rigorously questioning every assumption made by the student – and also drawing in the other student to the discussion.

Both these forms of dialogical learning can be found not only in classroom contexts, but also online. Online discussion forums go back to the 1970s, but really took off after the introduction of the WorldWide Web and high band telecommunications enabled the development of learning management systems, most of which now include an area for online discussions. These online discussion forums have some differences though with classroom seminars:

  • first,they are text based, not oral
  • second, they are asynchronous: participants can log in at any time, and from anywhere with an Internet connection, but this can cause some difficulties in following or participating in a particular argument or discussion
  • thus, third, many discussion forums allow for ‘threaded’ connections, enabling a response to be attached to the particular comment which prompted the response, rather than just displayed in chronological order. This allows for dynamic sub-topics to be developed, with sometimes more than ten responses within a single thread of discussion. This enables participants to follow multiple discussion topics over a period of time.

However, in general, the pedagogical similarities between online and face-to-face discussions are much greater than the differences. For academic and conceptual development, discussions need to be well organized by the teacher, and the teacher needs to provide the necessary support to enable the development of ideas and the construction of new knowledge for the students. There are several ways this can be done:

  • set clear goals for the discussions that are understood by the students, such as: ‘to explore gender and class issues in selected novels’ or ‘to compare and evaluate alternative methods of coding.’
  • set clear guidelines about expectations of students, such as ‘you should log in at least once a week to each discussion topic and make at least one substantive contribution to each topic each week.’
  • set clear, written codes of conduct for participating in discussions, and ensure that they are enforced
  • set topics for discussion that complement and expand issues in the study materials, and are relevant to answering assessment questions
  • provide the appropriate scaffolding or support, such as comments that help students develop their thinking around the topics, refer them back to study materials if necessary, or explain issues when students seem to be confused or misinformed
  • monitor the discussions to prevent them getting off topic or too personal
  • provide encouragement for those that are making real contributions to the discussion,  head off those that are trying to hog or dominate the discussions, and track those not participating, and help them to participate.

MOOCs

Massive, open, online courses usually include opportunities for discussion among students. The importance of discussion and the methods for organizing it, vary considerably within MOOCs. In instructionist MOOCs, based on video-recorded lectures, the discussion is usually ancillary, and is added to enable mainly clarification of concepts covered in the lectures. Because of the number of participants in instructionist MOOCs, it is unusual for the instructor responsible for the content of the MOOC to become heavily engaged in the discussions, although frequently teaching assistants may be asked to monitor the overall discussion and direct significant issues back to the main instructor for a general response.

In connectivist MOOCs, the interaction between participants is the core of the MOOC, and various methods and technologies are used to connect participants together. Thus hash tags may be used to enable participants to share in tweets from other participants, individuals may create their own blogs for their comments and reflections on the topics under discussion, with the blog urls being collected together and shared with other participants, or there may, less frequently, be a common discussion forum or area where all comments are posted. Even connectivist MOOCs though tend to have some form of loose central structure, with perhaps a variety of ‘experts’ being invited to start off conversations with some form of transmissive communication, such as a webcast or a reading, then the experts continue to participate in the following discussions.

These of course are two extremes, and as MOOCs develop, we are seeing some convergence, but for nearly all MOOCs, discussion between participants is seen as crucial for facilitating and developing learning. Nevertheless, there are some strong criticisms of the effectiveness of the discussion element of MOOCs for developing the high-level conceptual development required for academic learning. I have suggested that to develop deep, conceptual learning, there is a need in most cases for intervention by a subject expert, to clarify misunderstandings or misconceptions, to provide accurate feedback,  to ensure that the criteria for academic learning, such as use of evidence, clarity of argument, etc., are being met, and to ensure the necessary input and guidance to seek deeper understanding. Indeed, there has been a great deal of research into credit-based online courses that show instructor presence is a key factor in ensuring high completion rates for online courses. Firmin et al. (2014) have shown that when there is some form of instructor ‘encouragement and support of student effort and engagement’, results improve for all participants in MOOCs.

Furthermore, the more massive the course, the more likely participants are to feel ‘overload, anxiety and a sense of loss’, if there is not some instructor intervention or structure imposed (Knox, 2014). Without a structured role for subject experts, participants are faced with a wide variety of quality in terms of comments and feedback from other participants. There is again a great deal of research on the conditions necessary for the successful conduct of collaborative and co-operative group learning (see for instance, Dillenbourg, 1999, Lave and Wenger, 1991), and these findings certainly have not been applied to the management of MOOC discussions to date. (We will return to this topic in a later chapter.)

The counter argument is that MOOCs develop a new form of learning based on networking and collaboration that is essentially different from academic learning, and MOOCs are thus more appropriate to the needs of learners in a digital age. Adult participants in particular, it is claimed, have the ability to self-manage the development of high level conceptual learning.  MOOCs are ‘demand’ driven, meeting the interests of individual students who seek out others with similar interests and the necessary expertise to support them in their learning, and for many this interest may well not include the need for deep, conceptual learning but more likely the appropriate applications of such learning in specific contexts.

MOOCs do appear to work best for those who already have a high level of education and therefore bring many of the conceptual skills developed in formal education with them when they join a MOOC, and therefore contribute to helping those who come without such skills. Over time, as more experience is gained, MOOCs are likely to incorporate and adapt  for large numbers some of the findings from research on smaller group work. Indeed, MOOCs are likely to develop new ways to manage discussion effectively in very large groups. In the meantime, though, there is much work still to be done if MOOCs are to provide the support and structure needed to ensure deep, conceptual learning where this does not already exist in students.

Summary

For many faculty, the ideal teaching environment is Socrates sitting under the linden tree, with a small group of dedicated and interested students. Unfortunately, the reality of mass higher education makes this impossible for all but the most elite and expensive institutions. However, seminars for 25-30 students are not unrealistic, even in public undergraduate education. More importantly, seminar models enable the kind of teaching and learning that are most likely to facilitate the types of skills needed from our students in a digital age. Seminars are flexible enough to be offered in class or online, depending on the needs of the students. They are probably best used when students have done individual work before the seminar. Of upmost importance, though, is the ability of teachers to teach successfully in this manner, which requires different skills from transmissive lecturing.

We saw in Chapter 1 that although expansion of student numbers in higher education is part of the problem, it’s not the whole problem. Other factors, such as senior professors teaching less, and focusing mainly on graduate students, results in larger classes at undergraduate level, using transmissive lecturing. These classes are often taught by teaching assistants who have little more knowledge than the students they are teaching. And if more senior or experienced instructors switched from transmissive lectures, and instead required students to find and analyse content for themselves, this would free up more time for the instructors to spend on seminar-type teaching. So it as much an organizational issue, a matter of choice and priorities, as an economic issue. The more we can move towards a seminar approach to teaching and learning and away from large, transmissive lectures, the better, if we are to develop students with the skills needed in a digital age.

Over to you

Your feedback on this will be invaluable. In particular:

  • Do you agree that the kind of teaching conducted in seminar-type contexts is more appropriate for today’s learners than transmissive lectures? If so, why (or conversely, why not?)
  • is the description of the way dialogue and discussion operate to enhance learning accurate and if not, what should be changed?
  • are there important ways of teaching built around dialogue or discussion that have been missed and should be included?
  • do you agree with my comments about the current limitations of MOOCs for engendering the kind of discussions that lead to deep, conceptual learning? What could or do MOOCs do to help the development of such knowledge?
  • how realistic is it to move away from large, transmissive lecture classes to smaller, seminar-type teaching? What is preventing this from happening more often in our educational systems? Is it just a money issue, or are there other factors at work?

References

Asubel, D. et al. (1978) Educational Psychology: A Cognitive View New York: Holt, Reinhart and Winston

Dillenbourg, P. (ed.) (1999) Collaborative-learning: Cognitive and Computational Approaches. Oxford: Elsevier

Entwistle, N. and Peterson, E. (2004) Conceptions of Learning and Knowledge in Higher Education: Relationships with Study Behaviour and Influences of Learning Environments International Journal of Educational Research, Vol. 41. pp. 407-428

Firmin, R. et al. (2014) Case study: using MOOCs for conventional college coursework Distance Education, Vol. 35, No. 2

Harasim, L. (2012) Learning Theory and Online Technologies New York/London: Routledge

Knox, J. (2014) Digital culture clash: ‘massive’ education in the e-Learning and Digital Cultures Distance Education, Vol. 35, No. 2

Laurillard, D. (2001) Rethinking University Teaching: A Conversational Framework for the Effective Use of Learning Technologies New York/London: Routledge

Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Marton, F. and Saljö, R. (1997) Approaches to learning, in Marton, F., Hounsell, D. and Entwistle, N. (eds.) The experience of learning: Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press (out of press, but available online)

Next up

Experiential learning (learning by doing): labs, field trips, apprenticeships and workplace/co-op training

Main lessons for developing skills for a digital age.

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