Before we get to far down the rabbit hole about designing and teaching online classes, I want to share something I’ve had great success with in my face-to-face classes (and I imagine a version could be useful in an online class). It’s the discussion charter.
The discussion charter is explained in the book Discussion As A Way of Teaching. It’s a fantastic book if you don’t have it. Definitely get it. I’ve used it for every class I’ve ever taught, and it’s made me so much better at designing and leading discussions. The idea behind the discussion charter is that students come together to figure out what the ground rules should be in a discussion – particularly whole class discussions.
In general, I follow the guidelines from the text. I start by asking students to individually jot down qualities from the best and worst discussions they have ever been in. I also provide them with a list of questions to consider. Recently, I asked them to think about:
- How would you like to indicate that you are ready to speak?
- What role, if any, do you believe silence plays in a discussion?
- Should purposeful periods of silence and reflection be built into our time, should we continuously speak, or should we just go with it?
- Can I, or anyone, call directly on people even if they have not indicated they wish to speak?
- How do we respond if someone seems to be talking too much?
- How do we respond if someone does not talk at all?
This was not an exhaustive list, and they were not required to address these questions. But the questions did give them ways to get into thinking about what they wanted our discussions to look like.
Students then get into groups of four-five and create some guidelines. These are really notes for what they do/do not want in their discussions, and they are informal. I have everyone add them to a google doc, and then we review and discuss. From there, I write up a class charter and post it on our syllabus. The charter can always be edited at any point in the semester.
Some examples from my classes this semester that appeared on the charters:
- Come to class having done the readings
- Be aware of what is happening at each session and make the necessary preparations
- Practice active listening
- Use culturally competent language. Try to avoid microaggressions
- Use “I” statements. Avoid generalizations
- Disagree in a respectful manner
- It is important to be able to see one another. This facilitates better interactions.
- We can experiment with how our seating should look and can rearrange it whenever it is not working.
One of my classes has decided that during whole class discussions they want to raise their hands to be called on. In the other class, raising hands is not required but is seen as a useful tool if you find you are not able to insert yourself into the discussion.
A Few Points of Interest
First, the charters are created because I want students to have input – a serious amount of input – on how they experience our discussions. Creating a class charter, done on the first or second day of class, gives students agency over what these discussions look like.
Second, in writing up the charter I use their language. I might shorten things up a bit – we don’t want something that is so specific it actually restricts discussion – but the words I have used are their’s.
Third, I play a role in this charter too. In both classes students brought up something they did not like. Both said that they did not like it when professors counted how much they participated and expected them to speak a specific number of times each session to get a certain grade. Let me just say this…if my students had said they LOVED this approach I would have nixed it because I don’t agree with it. I’m not turning over my agency in this at all, and I’m not going to participate, or be ok with them participating, in ways that are not conducive to quality discussions.
In this case, I assured my students I would not be counting their participation. Why? Well, sometimes you have more or less to say on a topic for any number of reasons. Additionally, saying something in order to meet a number reduces discussion to being about quantity and not quality. Also, if I’m counting and checking things off I am not listening and cannot effectively facilitate a discussion.
Finally, look back at some of the things students wanted on the charter. They all noted the importance of coming to class prepared. They all understood what happens when people do not come to class prepared. I could say this a 1000 times, but I think it’s better that it come from them. They have collectively discussed and agreed on what they need to do to foster good discussions. They know we can modify these expectations at any point should something falter.
The power to have good discussions has been given over to them. I play a role in it, but my role, and my power to make the discussions successful, is small. They have the real power, and I want them to know that the quality of the discussions is largely up to them.