A Game-Changer in Accountability: Using Online Discussion Boards (Even in Face-to-Face Classes)

By Harry Brighouse

Harry Brighouse

I often start my smaller classes with an icebreaker, mainly so the students start to learn each other’s names and are more ready to talk to each other. I recently asked, “Name a book you haven’t read that you think you ought to have read,” and one woman immediately said, “That would be all the novels from last semester’s English Literature class.”

It’s a familiar story. The lecturer isn’t confident that the students have read and understood the material well enough to talk about it. She delivers the content herself, so the students know that they will get everything they need from the lecturer without reading and will not be accountable in class for having done the reading. They can cram for the test from their notes, and a good essay prompt focuses students on particular reading which they might, reluctantly, have to do, but not while it’s being discussed in class. So, no reading.

At least that was the dynamic in my classes prior to the emergence of discussion boards. I eschewed a solution some of my colleagues use, which is a ‘pop quiz’ with simple, factual recall questions about the reading, because I didn’t want to signal that what I value is factual recall. I want students to learn how to think critically. But, even in smaller classes, I couldn’t trust that they had done the reading.

The game-changer has been the online discussion board.

My first lecture of the week is on a Tuesday, and most of the reading is assigned for that class. Thirty-six hours before class, the students must respond to a prompt about the reading—one that is impossible to respond to coherently without having done the reading. Settings allow you to prevent them from seeing other students’ responses until after they post. Then, they have until the beginning of class to respond to a classmate.

If students post, they get credit; if not, they don’t. Literally (and I mean that in the old-fashioned sense in which it actually meant “literally” rather than the modern sense in which it seems to mean “not literally”), if they submit a paragraph of nonsense, they’ll get credit. But they don’t. Their writing is public to me and their peers, and they don’t want to be embarrassed.

In smaller classes, the effect has been astonishing. Almost all my students do almost all the reading for almost every class. In my upper-level classes, the total word count for 20 students is often 15,000 or more. (Remember, one incoherent sentence would be sufficient for credit.) Some comments form the basis of papers; many are, themselves, rough (and, occasionally, not-so-rough) papers. The students feel accountable to me and one another. I know what they are thinking, what they understand, and what they don’t, which has transformed my preparation for class. It hasn’t made it easier or less time-consuming, but it has made it more interesting. Instead of guessing what might be useful to students, I can make well-informed judgments about what they need. I can talk much less in class than I used to, and my talk is more useful than it was.

In addition, they can each know what the others think before they come to class. In combination with a policy of making them learn each other’s names, it seems to make them much more engaged with one another. Students routinely refer in class discussions to ideas other people have posted online.

The board provokes the students to read more and makes the time in the classroom more focused on them. The fact that I know what they are thinking allows me to spend more time in class making them accountable for having done the reading—which they have actually done. Ironic, isn’t it?

Large lectures are different. I read many posts, and so do my TAs, but we don’t read everything. Typically students write a paragraph, and the response posts are often little more than a few sentences expressing agreement. I’m not a fool, and I don’t believe for a minute that all the students do all the reading. But I have evidence that many more do it than used to. (In particular, two of the readings should provoke outrage in many of the students, and, whereas before I adopted this policy, most students came to class on those days impassive, now many arrive in class steaming.) And, as with the small class, I have much better evidence than I ever had before of what they are thinking and what they do and do not understand, which enables me to prepare more relevant lectures and better prompts for in-class discussion.

This semester I’ve been personalizing the process for the large lecture more. I require students to sit by discussion section in the lecture hall, and the Canvas (LMS) settings make it easy to organize the online interactions by discussion section—so that each student interacts only with the posts of the other 20 students in their section (whose names they already know, after just a few weeks). Maybe this will prompt more reading and more elaborate discussions.

For a long time, I assumed that everybody else was doing this, partly because it is obvious and partly because, being basically a technophobe, I am usually 5 to 10 years behind everyone else for any given technological innovation. Some readers probably think it’s hardly worth mentioning. I’d agree if it weren’t for the fact that so many colleagues express surprise and curiosity when I describe it.

What to read next: “Navigating the Need for Rigor and Engagement: How to Make Fruitful Class Discussions Happen,” by Harry Brighouse


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