Breaking One-sided Conversations: Reflective Journals and Discussion Forums

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Reflective writing (both long-form and informal) has always been a staple of my courses. From an early mentor, I appropriated a weekly “What Did You Learn This Week?” Friday prompt. A third teacher in the same school modified that to “What Did You Learn This Week, and How Did You Learn It?” This is the form that I’ve been using most recently, but with a discussion forum instead of the little scraps of paper I used to collect. The goal of using a discussion forum is to move from a “reporting tool” to one for conversation. That process isn’t natural for my students, though, so I’m taking a different approach tomorrow…

The How-To

I used to collect these brief reflections from students on the way out the door on Fridays. Collecting them on paper posed some advantages:

  • It was very easy to see that everyone was doing the same thing at the same time,
  • It was a quick transition from any activity into writing during the last five minutes of the period, and
  • It was easy for me to quickly rifle through and scan them (although was this really an advantage?).

Mindful of these advantages, I wanted to move it to an online discussion forum model to take advantage of some additional possibilities:

  • Using an online tool preserves a student’s weekly reflections so that they can zoom out and look back at several weeks at a time. I need to explore this capability more.
  • Using a discussion forum allows me to reply to a student’s reflection to ask follow-up questions or validate good points. This is what I’m currently tinkering with.
  • Students can attach links or files to share as part of their reflection. As of yet, I haven’t built this out in class.

We use Schoology as our LMS, which allows for discussion forums which can be individually assigned to students. I create a discussion forum for each student, title it with their name, and assign it to them only. This ensures that no one else can see the forum (or, obviously, what’s in it). The reflections are now between the student and myself. I put all of these discussions in a separate folder within the course to keep myself organized. This also lets me use the “next” button within the Schoology interface to quickly navigate through lots of them in order.

I originally did this within Moodle, and many other LMS’s have the same capability one way or another.

Is Anyone Listening?

I am pleased with the quality of reflection that I get from students initially. Their posts fulfill my initial goal of getting them to think about how they learn their material and what sources were useful for them, as well as having them identify and focus on some of their achievements throughout the week. But what I get is often something like this (fictionalized response):

Student: This week, I spent most of my time working on using Masks in Photoshop. I found some great tutorials online.

Me: I’m glad that you found some useful resources! Are there any that you think would be useful for the class? Can you post them in the Updates section for everyone? Tell me more about the Masks that you used this week– what did you use them for? What did they help you do?

The thread ends, and gets repeated next Friday. I am asking unanswered (and potentially unread) questions.

Is it Grading, or Conversing?

I was wondering why I never got any replies to these questions. It’s certainly not that my responses are invisible– Schoology includes them in the notifications feed, which students check fairly often. They’re also all displayed inline when a student submits their next submission. So why are students not answering the questions sent to them? I think the answer lies in what they think they’re receiving: I think that we’re having a conversation, and they think that it’s feedback. Before we, as adults and professionals, say that “They’re the same thing!,” think about how the feedback process traditionally runs:

10 STUDENT SUBMITS WORK
20 TEACHER RETURNS WORK WITH COMMENTS
30 GOTO 10

For this to be a meaningful conversation, we have to break the association with grading/feedback so that students internalize that it is a conversation. As all of the students in the class are starting to blog, we’ve been talking about what makes a good blog comment, so it’s time to drive home the importance of using commenting as a way to continue a conversation, not just let feedback die on the vine. As authors of a blog, students should respond to the people wishing to have a conversation with them about their ideas.

Conversation Fail

I’m going to open class tomorrow with a short and utterly ridiculous dramatic reading with a couple of volunteers from the class. After we have (hopefully!) a few laughs, I’ll ask them to take a minute and discuss why blogs have comments. We’ve talked about what kinds of comments they’re hoping for in their blogs, so I hope that conversation comes back and we can use it to tie back to the idea of the reflective journals as conversations like the blogs, and not just feedback to be tossed and ignored.

(Google Doc Link РShare per license at bottom of post)

Speaking of Comments…

Do you use discussion forums or anything similar for your students? Do you find a similar lack of threaded conversation? How do you address this? Comment below!

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