This semester, I’m teaching a discussion-based course. I’ve taught this sort of course before, and I really like the no-lecture format, as I think the students learn more when they work through the materials themselves and teach each other. However, the major problem with this format of a course is figuring out how to get all the students to engage in the discussions. There are always a few really chatty students who do a lot of the talking, and some who never speak. Most importantly, to quote my University of Michigan colleague Orie Shafer, “the boldest, most confident person is rarely the person who understands things the best.”
Over the years, I’ve tried different strategies to encourage more even participation, but still felt like the evenness of discussion participation was a problem in courses. So, when I met with someone from the University of Michigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching about the design of the course I’m teaching this semester, this was a topic I was interested in discussing more. She recommended watching this video featuring Orie Shafer talking about how he uses google documents to facilitate group discussion in his class. (Here’s a direct link to the video.) That video is where the quote in the preceding paragraph comes from, and it really resonated with me. So, I decided to give google docs a shot this semester.
How do they work? Well, we use slightly different approaches in different class periods, but the general idea is that the students split up into groups (it seems to work best if I split them up, rather than letting them choose groups themselves). Each group is then given a set of questions to answer or topics to research. They open up a google document, share it with their group mates (groups are usually 2-4 people), and share it with me. Then they get to work on answering the questions or researching the topics. Sometimes, the whole class answers a single set of questions – I am most likely to use this approach if the reading was a difficult reading from the primary literature. In this case, I give them a set of questions aimed at making sure they all understand the main results, where they came from, and what they mean. Other times, each group researches a different topic related to the readings for the day; oftentimes, many of these topics emerge out of the pre-class forum discussions, but other times the topics are things that I think they would be interested in or that would be important for them to understand.
In my opinion, there are several key advantages of using google documents in discussion-based courses:
1. Being able to type out their answers gives the students who are more shy a more even playing field, and allows them to get their thoughts and opinions out.
2. Even for students who aren’t particularly shy, writing out their thoughts before trying to articulate them to a large group can give them a space to work through complicated ideas. I’ve overheard students commenting to each other how much easier it is for them to get things out in writing first, then to discuss it with each other. Of course, google documents aren’t essential for this – you could have the students write down their thoughts on paper first.
3. I can more easily monitor the different groups and provide feedback in a less intrusive way. This is probably the biggest benefit of the google docs, in my opinion. In previous discussion-based courses, I would rotate around the room to check in on the different groups. As soon as I got to a group, they would usually all stop talking and look at me. Now, I monitor the discussions from my laptop at the front of the room, so I can more easily see what they’re confused by. And, more importantly, if they are heading off in the wrong direction or their document reveals a fundamental misconception about something, it is much easier for me to get them back on track in a way that doesn’t embarrass the students. For example, in one class this semester, the answers to one question by one group revealed a really fundamental misunderstanding of human evolution. If this had come up in front of the whole class, it would have been tricky to correct it in a way that didn’t completely stifle remaining discussions. And, if this had happened in a small group before I started using google docs in class, I probably wouldn’t have known they were so confused about this topic, because I wouldn’t have been likely to hear it while circulating the room. But, with the google document, I could see it and just type in a note suggesting that they should do some research on human evolution and patterns of migration. That was enough to get them back on track and then, in a moment that shows the power of this peer-based learning, they then explained what they had just learned to their peers. This is not something I would have thought to include in a lecture on this topic, because I wouldn’t have realized they were confused about this – again, this is one of the strengths of this approach to teaching.
4. It is easy to create a document at the end of class that synthesizes the major topics of discussion. I copy chunks of the different groups’ google documents and post that file to the course website so students can come back to it later. For example, earlier in the semester, I had one group go through the different stages of clinical trials, with the goal of having them understand how long the process is. In a later class, students were wondering why doctors weren’t prescribing a drug based on a result from an experiment done in mice that had just been published last May. Clearly the were forgetting about the lengthy clinical trial process! So, we went back to the document that synthesized our earlier discussions, and could recap all that information.
(As a general note, part of why I think it works so well in my class this semester is that all students bring laptops to class. They are not required to bring laptops, but are strongly encouraged to do so.)
Of course, it’s not all upsides. Some downsides to the approach:
1. While it’s easier to monitor the discussions than by circulating the room, I still find it difficult to keep them on top of all the groups. (We’ve had as many as 9 groups researching different topics.) I don’t know that there’s much I can do about this, other than get better at following different documents at once.
2. Similarly, some level of walking around the groups is still useful, even if the students initially stop talking when I get there. They often have questions about the topic that they ask when I stop by, but not via google document. So, I need to do some combination of them, which means even more for me to juggle.
(These next two are not specific to google documents, but more to this discussions-based approach.)
3. I think some students would prefer that I just tell them what they’re supposed to know. I’ve tried to explain to students that part of the benefit of student-centered learning is that, when they figure it out themselves or learn from a peer, it sticks much better than if I just try to explain it. But my class this semester is made up of freshman, and their other science courses are probably all traditional lectures. Some students prefer that approach (even if the data show that they don’t retain the material as well when it’s presented in lecture format). As Eric Mazur mentioned in his talk at UMich (storified here), there can be a false sense of security after sitting through a lecture – you feel like you’ve learned a lot because of all the information that was just presented to you, even if understanding and retention of that information tend to be poor.
4. Choosing the topics for small group work is difficult and requires lots of last-minute work on my part. As I said above, I try to base the in-class discussion topics on the forum posts by the students. (Their forum posts are due the night before class.) This means that I spend a few hours right before class trying to find topics and sources that are accessible, informative, interesting, and reliable. And then I have to figure out how to group them together and try to make it so that the different groups have roughly similar amounts of material to process and present to their peers. I tend to be the sort of person who prepares things well in advance, so this “just-in-time” teaching can feel like a scramble for me.
5. Sometimes the wireless goes down, and then we have to adjust on the fly in class.
6. By encouraging everyone to bring their laptops and have them open, I am certainly making it more likely that some students will get distracted by instant messages, emails, etc. Most of the students have their laptops open so they can read the notes they wrote and/or take notes on what other students are saying. But I know some of them are sometimes switching to non-class materials. I’m not entirely sure of what to do about this. I think if the students had exams that might potentially cover any topic that was brought up in class, that would encourage some students to pay attention more. (At the same time, it would probably also stress out other students who would then be just trying to memorize things for an exam.)
Overall, I’ve been happy with using google docs in class, and plan on continuing to use them in my discussion-based classes in the future. Participation in my class this semester has been much more even than in previous classes. There are still some students who talk more than others, but no one dominates discussion. And there are other students who are still pretty shy, but everyone participates in class now, which I’ve never had happen before. At the same time, I will probably try to change some aspects of the course, especially to reduce the digital distraction problem. But I suspect those will center more on assessments, and that I won’t give up on google docs in class — I think they really help with discussions.