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Writing good discussion prompts July 8, 2020

Posted by aquillam in teaching.
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This post assumes you’ve read my previous post, creating effective and engaging discussions.

Numerous studies have shown that students learn best when they learn socially. Learners retain more information and are better able to synthesize it, recognize assumptions, challenge misconceptions, and utilize it in novel or creative ways if they interact with other students. In distance or blended learning classes, the asynchronous discussion forum is often the tool of choice for facilitating social learning. However, simply creating a discussion board is not enough. You need to help them build  their learning community, which requires both social presence and cognitive engagement. Students need to see each other as real people, with an emotional presence in the class. If they think they matter to their peers, they are more likely to be willing to do the extra work of really engaging with their peers over the material. The rules you set and the involvement you take help to determine how involved the students will be, but you can also use prompts that encourage diverse thinking, and the sharing of ideas. The level of the prompts largely determine the level of cognitive engagement. Read more about creating effective and engaging discussions here, or check the resources at the end. I’ll focus on constructing the prompts below. 

Good discussion prompts should guide students toward higher order cognitive skills by facilitating discussion. Remember, the goal is to get students to have a conversation with each other, not to respond to the primary prompt. Bloom’s taxonomy (see below) lists the order of cognitive skills as: remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating. When grappling with new knowledge, students tend to focus on the recall and understanding steps, but those can be assessed with something like an auto-graded quiz. The point of the discussion is to get them to engage more deeply. 

You may be able to write a single prompt that will ask them to analyze or evaluate, or you may need a scaffolded set of prompts to build toward those higher levels. Don’t forget your prompt needs to be structured in such a way that it encourages conversation, like limiting the number of people who reply directly to the prompt, so they have to reply to each other. These prompts take careful crafting to work well, but usually take less intervention to keep them going.  

You may also want to consider a structured type of prompt, such as problem solving, project based, or debate prompts. These more structured types often lead to both greater involvement (as determined by the number of posts) and  higher levels of cognition (as determined by the level of skill shown in the post content.) However, these also usually require more attention on the part of the instructor. A debate, for example, may require a thread for the initial brainstorm of ideas, followed by group assignment and facilitation of group discussions to develop a group argument, and finally moderation of the class debate. Consider how many students you have, how many GSIs can help you, and whether you can remove some other assessment (maybe the debate replaces a homework assignment.) If you can manage the workload, the enhanced student engagement is well worth it. 

So now that you have some idea about the different types of prompts, let’s talk about formulating the prompts. 

Every prompt (every piece of work, really), should be relevant to what you want students to get out of your class, so start by considering your learning goals. What learning goals do you want covered by this discussion? What outcomes would show you that they have achieved those goals? What outcomes involve higher level skills? If you were to have a conversation with friends or family about that outcome, what would it look like, and how might it start? Are there open questions or ideas up for debate? Could it be posed as a problem to be solved? Does it connect to a larger class project? Should the students have enough information when the prompt is posted to be able to generate a conversation? These questions should give you the foundation for designing your prompt(s). 

A standard structure for discussions is to require a response to the original prompt, plus two responses to peer’s posts. That works well for small classes or group discussions, and has a nice structure if you have different deadlines for the original replay and the peer responses. However, in a large class, that quickly becomes unwieldy for both you and the students. Offer them options, like responding to your prompts or to their peers, from the beginning. For example, ask a “what do you know, what do you want to know” question and give students the option to reply to a previous response with expansion or clarification of the knowledge, related questions, and thoughts about how to answer the questions. If the conversation lags, or if it isn’t at the level you want, you can join it by asking your own questions. “I see many people want to know more about [topic]. Why is that interesting to you? What knowledge do you think you’ll need? What have you learned that made you think of that?” 

Prompts with multiple requirements dependent on prior responses are useful for scaffolded discussions. Brainstorming, or general invitation questions are good starting points. They activate prior knowledge and get students started sharing ideas. However, those types of  prompts generally don’t illicit much interaction on their own, and their cognitive level is down there at the bottom of Bloom’s taxonomy. They tend to illicit a lot of “I totally agree, I like [thing] too!” peer responses.  You can push the level up by asking for value judgments or consensus, then ask for solutions or next steps. For example, “Due Tuesday: If you are one of the first 10 people to respond, post a challenge to accomplishing [thing] and explain what makes it a challenge. If there are already 10 responses, pick the response that you think poses the greatest challenge and explain why you think it is the greatest challenge. Due Friday: look at other people’s responses to what poses the greatest challenge, and pick one that you don’t agree with. Explain how you think that challenge can be overcome. Alternatively, respond to the responses to your earlier post.” By staging the steps in the original prompt, you’re laying out the plan, so students can prepare to write their responses. You’re also enforcing interaction by requiring that most of the responses actually be responses to students, not to you. Finally, you’re giving them some autonomy, by offering them options around how to engage. 

Open-ended prompts with a variety of reasonable responses are the most likely to engage higher level thinking. Prompts that ask students to reflect on course material and incorporate it to make some sort of judgement seem to be the most effective at achieving higher level thinking. You can help generate the sense of community by asking students to reflect on other posts. Follow that up again by asking them to respond to the people who responded to their posts. Make sure the discussion ties in to the course by matching it to the learning goals, or by using it as the foundation for other assignments. You might use a prompt like the previous example to assign groups for a project to come up with solutions to the challenges, or vote on which challenge is the biggest and set up a debate for whether or not we should try to overcome the challenge. 

You can also use the prompts to drive students to help each other out. Set up a standing, non-required discussion for “it’s in the syllabus” questions and encourage its use (you can refer to it, send students there when they ask questions appropriate for it, give extra credit for students who are helpful, thank the extra helpful ones…) Set up homework or exam review threads.  For example, a week (or more) before the exam, ask students for the three most difficult problems, then ask them to help each other out. Or ask them to try and write exam questions, but specify that they have to be higher on Bloom’s taxonomy than recall or understanding. Give them topic headings and ask them to fill in what they know. 

Most discussion boards will allow you to set up groups, including an option for groups of 1. If you want to use a more formal prompt type, you’ll likely want to take advantage of that. For example, if you want the class to hold a debate, you’ll need to break them into teams. You might also break them into groups to tackle a problem. For example, if you give them a really big challenge, like getting humans to Mars, you might start with a brainstorm/ biggest challenge post for the whole class, then split them into groups to tackle one individual challenge per group, then bring them back together again to make sure their solutions aren’t conflicting. You can even use discussion boards to mimic think-pair-share, or 1-2-4-all (think-pair-small group-full class sharing) techniques. One person groups offer the opportunity for journaling or metacognitive questions: “Compare your first two posts and most recent two posts. Which ones show the highest level cognitive engagement? How do you judge that? What was it about that post that engaged you on that level? Do you think this discussion board is helping you improve your critical thinking skills?”

Finally, a good prompt will be transparent, and accommodating. If you supply your students with the course learning goals, the prompt should tell them what goals you hope to reach with this discussion prompt. It should tell them what sources you expect them to pull from (book chapter(s), links to reading materials…) Requirements, including deadlines and formatting,  should be clear. Provide links to services they might need (e.g. if they’re likely to want video, include links to the video and captioning how-tos). Check your prompt for accessibility standards. 

And, don’t forget to keep a document somewhere with the prompt and any notes, like whether or not it was good, or needed improvement. Future you will thank you for it! 


ES 2018 – Lightning talks – Active Learning May 11, 2018

Posted by aquillam in Astronomy, teaching.
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Enriching Scholarship is an annual series of workshops on teaching and learning at the University of Michigan. This session was a series of lightning talks on Active Learning. There were 7 presenters. Titles below are my quick reinterpretation, not the listed talk titles (lightning talks = no time to type everything, I just wanted to be sure I got the names right!)


Yulia Sevryugina: Strategies in Chemistry

Prof. Sevryugina described a couple strategies she uses for her large chemistry lab.

  • Syllabus game
    • Students generally don’t read the syllabus, and don’t really pay attention if you go over it during class, so this is intended to engage the students actively with the syllabus. It also models some lab classes, though she didn’t say if it modeled the way her class operates.
    • The room is set up with stations, and the class is divided into groups. The stations can be completed in any order except the last one. At each station is a printed copy of the syllabus, and question sheets. As each group visits a station, they pick up and fill out the question sheet for that station. Once they have all the sheets filled out, they go to the last station, where they meet the instructor, get a sweet, and discuss some of the questions.
    • Some of the questions are actually discussion topics, such as “find out why your other groups members are taking this class” or “share some learning strategies you think will help you succeed in this class.”
    • Questions are designed to cover FAQs, help the students get to know each other, and get to know the instructor.
    • Assessment is points for completion of the question sheets
  • Canvas Discussion / Piazza
    • The anonymous option helps make the instructor more approachable, and decreases the students’ embarrassment with asking questions in front of their peers.
  • Jigsaw classroom
    • The students are first divided into “expert” groups. Each group is given an area to study at home and become an expert in. At the next class, new groups are formed with one person from each expert group: the jigsaw. Each jigsaw group is given a task or activity to complete as a group, which can include an artifact for formal assessment.
    • final grades should generally be a group grade, but should include a component for individual preparation, so students can’t shirk the expert phase.
    • It’s usually very useful to have a decompression phase at the end. In particular, it is helpful to have a whole-class discussion to ensure students identify holes in their expertise, or weaknesses in their problem solving strategies.
    • This technique can be used to increase student preparation. It slightly decreases the workload (e.g. instead of having to understand all of Newton’s laws, each student only really has to understand one) but increases the stakes (the jigsaw group is counting on that student for the information.)


Eri Bell: Increasing student interest in science via a capstone research project 

Prof. Bell introduced a research project culminating in a poster session in several large astronomy classes. He showed data for Astro 101 in Fall 2017, indicating that the large scale group project did intact significantly increase student interest and confidence in science. This is a large class, 180 students, but the poster session was still manageable. He offered a few tips and takeaways.

  • leave enough time for final revisions.
  • a good presentation space is important. posters in the lecture hall stifled conversation by making it difficult to move around. Having it in a space where the department members and surrounding departments could visit gave it much more of a feeling of a real poster session.
  • require peer interactions by requiring something like two peer evaluations or reports of other posters so that students are forced to interact with the other posters
  • I’ll add that from my point of view, having a good rubric was important. In particular, we needed to make sure we were grading on content, not appearance, so having specific measurable items was important to ensuring we gave fair grades.



Jessie Lee: Gallery walk sale presentation

Previously in HRM 305, students had done a final project where they were supposed to come up with an HR plan then give presentation at end of class. However, the other students really only engaged in passive listening, so the presentations didn’t seem very valuable except as a summative assessment, not at all like the real world. Prof. Lee changed it to be more like a gallery walk (think opening night of an art exhibition, or a poster session!)

  • held in a collaborative leaning space, where there are movable tables and chairs and wall-mounted monitors. Student groups were set up at stations around each monitor, or in groups that could travel from station to station. People at each station give a 10 minute talk, then 3 min Q&A. After the Q&A, the audience can move to a new station.
  • Students provide peer feedback on the presentations. The feedback form is structured and includes specific questions, as well as an opportunity for general comments. The presenters really liked getting the feedback.


Carol Shannon Teach, Assess, Revise: using assessment to drive revision

~2013 the college of pharmacy noted some issue with their curriculum: students were not working effectively, reported learning skills much later in the program than they should hav, and the faculty and staff had fundamental misconceptions about what students knew when they came in to the program. For example, students have no idea how to use the internet for scholarly research.

They needed new curriculum to address these issues.They changed problem sets to more closely match real-life scenarios, tried to match the specifics of what students rally needed (e.g. pubMed & Embase search). They began using a pre-test for all students to determine what was needed, and post test to see what the retained. Students learned more in classes where they had to do pre-work, so they’ll be revising the curriculum again!


Ruth Lee: Google Docs in first year writing class

Prof. Li taught ENG 125 – freshmen english (required). Classes are primarily discussion sections with about 20 students per class. She used many features of Google Docs to enhance collaboration, including real-time collaboration in class. Some examples:

  • assign an essay to read with things like vocabulary, citations, other items already highlighted. The highlights were color coded. This modeled what she expected the students to learn.
  • brainstorming – groups were given a section of google doc to work on, then were able to evaluate the other groups’ work without having to share documents.
  • group commenting – everyone put in their thesis statement, then  peers comment on it
  • class reading chart – Students make comments about the readings without identifying which reading. Peers try to identify the reading and give an explanation for why they think the comment belongs with that reading.

The students interacted well together, and were more meta-aware of the writing and collaborative process. Google docs work well in the relatively small group.

Further scaffolding to develop reading and writing skills would help (there’s always more work to be done!)


Dave Choberka – UMMA Exchange


UMMA has a collection database, but searching is hard because the keywords are limited (e.g. a search for Whistler or “Sea and Rain” would turn up the painting by that title, but not a search for “beach”, even though it’s a person walking on a beach.) Also, research on the collections tends to disappear after its done. The Exchange solves some of those problems.

  • you can create groups of objects, like all the things that seem to be about zombies
    • Once a group of objects is created, if you view one of the objects, it will show you all groups the object is on, and all the related objects.
    • You can select “On display” to see only objects that are actually on display in the museum.
  • You can create virtual exhibitions, which include text and resources from outside to help put the UMMA artifact in context.


Dominique Butler-Borruat:  “Lets talkabroad”

This is an online platform that provides trained conversation partners. It’s not just for language classes, it’s for conversation practice, including practice for professional communication. There is a fee per conversation. The conversation partners are vetted and coached before the conversations. Instructors can specify a region or the world (e.g. Prof. Butler-Borruat has students talking with people in French Guiana).

Tips for teaching intro astronomy July 12, 2017

Posted by aquillam in Science, teaching.
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First and foremost: this may be the only science class some of these people ever take, so think carefully about what you want them to get out of the class.

  • How do you want to change them? What do you want them to remember 20 years from now, even if they don’t specifically remember that they learned it in this (or any other) class. Always keep this in mind when making lesson plans.

Make lesson plans

  • A complete, formal lesson plan includes goals for the unit (usualy a chapter from the text), the most important ideas, a brief outline of the lecture material, notes on potential problems, topics covered in lab/discussion and homework, and what details will come from the book only.
  • If you don’t do a formal, complete lesson plan, at least write down the items from the unit you want to change them, the items they need to understand future units, and the items you want them to know for the exam. If the only thing you have is items you want them to know for the exam, consider dropping the unit.

Be aware of student expectations

  • Many students take astronomy thinking they will learn things like the names of constellations, mythologies, or how to read a sundial.
  • Many students take astronomy because they are afraid of taking a “hard science” class like physics or chemistry, or they think astronomy will have less math.
  • Be up front with them about the topics covered and the necessity of using math as well as fundamental physics, chemistry, and possibly geology and biology.

Don’t repeat the book

  • The book is expensive. If you’re just going to repeat it, don’t make them buy it. Instead, cover the material from a different angle, point out connections students are likely to miss in the reading, address common misconceptions, and use active learning techniques to engage the students and increase their level of understanding (in other words, make reading the book homework, and use class time for homework-like activities.) Let the book fill in details like numbers or specific features. Don’t add extra details unless it’s to tie things together or involves a discovery too interesting to skip or too recent for the book.

Be aware of deadlines

  • Know when the last day of drop-add is and be prepared for students who add the class on that day.
  • Make sure there is enough evaluated work or sample of the exam so students can assess whether or not they should drop before that day.


Enriching Scholarship 2014 – Large class engagement May 13, 2014

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Enriching Scholarship is “a week of free workshops, discussions, and seminars… for instructional faculty and staff” at the University of Michigan. On Wednesday I attended a session on best practices for large lectures sponsored by the Center for Research on Teaching and Learning (CRLT). The CRLT formed Faculty Learning communities centered around large courses, focused on improving the classes and engaging students. Part of the goal is to find a way to engage the students not only during lecture, but also outside of class.

Michaela Zint

Michaela Zint uses Piazza as an exam study tool. She put study questions into Piazza about a week before the exam, and assigns a couple of questions to teams of  2-3 students. The teams post solutions, then review another group’s solution to a different questions. She also reviewed answers, up-voting good ones and commenting on incomplete or erroneous ones. Student’s exam scores improved some, but their participation improved significantly, and carried through into lecture. However, there were a few important things she has found about using Piazza.

If the faculty doesn’t use piazza, it isn’t useful to the students, and they hate it. If the prof. is active, they love it (how you use the tool is more important than the existence of the tool). Allowing students to post anonymously makes it a safe-to-fail environment, but faculty can still see who participated, so participation credit can still be assessed. Without credit, it doesn’t get used much, so low stakes assessment is needed to ensure participation. For exam prep, she found it was better to include some points for accuracy of answers too. Participation is additionally increased by a “bargin” where she agrees to help the students based in part on how much work they put in.

There is a significant added load in the week before exams (especially since she needs to assess the essay-type answers to make it truly valuable) BUT it significantly reduces the repeated “when is the exam” type of email, so on average it actually reduces her load (note to achieve this reduction, it is important to make sure students are using piazza, not email). Additionally, she sets a time limit after which she is done for the day and won’t answer any more questions.

One other note: although piazza is incorporated into CTools, ITS and 4-help are not very familiar with it. The piazza support people are really great though, and they can handle most questions.

Jim Morrow

Jim Morrow was looking for a way of increasing engagement outside the course, and giving them practice with analytical reading skills. He wants them to be able to analyze current events on their own.

For class, he has them write papers, and gives essay questions on the exam. He uses Lesson Builder in CTools to give them practice doing an “annotated news story.” The assignments are practice only, not for credit. However, he talks about why it’s useful in class, and the GSIs review the stories in discussion, so it is clear that it is important.

In Lesson Builder, they get a story with a writing prompt. After reading the story with the prompt in mind, they can look at an annotated version to check their answers. After they open the answer, the next question becomes available, then the next answer, etc. He is working on ideas for actually grading the activities.

Doug Richstone

Doug was looking for ways to address 3 vexing issues: limited engagement in the subject,  shallow comprehension despite good factual knowledge, and Friday class/low attendance. The things he tried: lots of low stakes assessment, including frequent quizzes, harder homework with optional/bonus questions that were even more difficult, think-pair-share and clickers, and bonus points on Friday.

The one thing that worked unquestionably were the bonus points on Friday – much better attendance.

During the class, students did a lot of struggling to keep up, but there was a larger “A” group (20% instead of 5 – 10%) than in past semesters. He also had a larger early attrition rate than in the past. Maybe this was an unusual year though, because there seemed to be a lot of people with flu, or it could have been a quicker wake-up call to get rid of students who  wouldn’t have done well and would have dropped latter. The few late drops he did talk to thought they couldn’t achieve the grade they wanted, so better clarity of grading is important. Many did not realize that the optional assignments could raise their grade by one full letter!


After the presentations, there was a lot of time for discussion, including suggestions for participants.

In a class on archeology and pseudoscience, the prof. shows a youtube video, then has class discuss it. She also gives candy and stickers for participation (which the students seem to love and it frees her from having to track points).

To track in-class work, she uses a Google form instead of clickers so she can collect better responses than a multiple choice question. If multiple choice is useful, she  can use  a”select from list” type of question, but mostly she uses the text box. Several other people use  google forms for minute papers. HOWEVER, if it’s required and requires a device, equity is a problem. Not every student can afford a laptop!

Clickers are cheap, so everyone can afford them, and they are purchased with books, so financial aid covers them. Clicker questions break up lecture, give a quick check of how students are doing and frees the instructor to move around the room. However, you MUST have tough questions. Students don’t like it if it’s only for attendance, and it’s not really useful that way.

Other alternatives to the laptop: hand in work on paper; don’t require laptop based work (e.g. no credit for Lecture Tools); use whiteboards and group work; texting (faculty are less likely to have this than students); or arrange for students to borrow a laptop from ISS. Whatever you do, decide what you want to achieve first, then look for the tools that will do that.

One of the participants teaches a medical course where attendance is a problem. The lectures are streamed online, so students can watch from anywhere. Lecture gives them the information, but then they have to do something with that. Students who watch video do much worse than those who always come to class – Why is a current research project, though most students watch the video at increased speed, he thinks that’s why they do worse.

To break up the information delivery, you have to develop your own style – e.g. wear a t-shirt relevant to today’s topic. Look for teachable moments – spice drops are just sweet (not spicy) if you plug nose before eating them. Find something to do to illustrate difficult concepts to make it worthwhile to come to the live lecture. Skeletal pots may be helpful to increase attendance and get people to engage in good note taking (not transcription). In other words, do something to make coming to lecture really worthwhile.

Another participant uses a “TA of the day“. Once during semester each student is assigned to work a problem before class, then help peers with problem during class. That student is also required to report back on misconceptions and problems.

How to deal with lecture hall space: block off some seats to ensure you have aisles; ask some students to leave the room while they work on something in small groups; do something that requires them to move around the room, like changing partners or structured activities.

How to handle learning disabilities? Do not single the person out (it’s hard to deal with 300 students filing past if you get extra time – you might prefer to take a hit to your grade over being an example). ASK THE STUDENT what they want. Talk to services for students with disabilities. Require them to bring the form to you outside of class (e.g. office hours), and talk to them when they bring the form in. The test accommodation center is a hassle to use (and not very friendy to instructors), but it IS a quiet place with assistive technology. Be aware that things like rooms can be a problem because it takes a long time to compose and run a message through spell check, so you really need to have an alternative for things like office hours.