Use of the chat feature in Adobe Connect and of discussion forums in learning management systems (LMS) such as Canvas are two popular pedagogical strategies for encouraging students to contribute in online classes. However, high quality student contributions should move beyond agreement with others in order to maximize learning. In this chapter, I share the process of how collaboratively drafting a list of what constitutes “thoughtful contributions” to class can lead to richer online class learning opportunities.
Teaching and Learning Goal
My goals in using this strategy are to:
- Promote a thoughtful classroom environment in which quality of ideas, opinions, examples, and expressions of emotions are valued over quantity of comments made in chat or in discussion forums
- Contribute to feelings of bravery for students wishing to make contributions to classroom discussions
- Create clear and transparent criteria for grading discussion forum initial posts and replies, as well as the “chat” part of the live class participation grading rubric
- Address issues of power and privilege in the classroom by providing all students equal voice in creation of the list of “thoughtful contributions” as well as sharing instructor control over grading with them by incorporating their criteria into grading schemes
Activity and Results
I was first exposed to the idea of creating a list of what constitutes “thoughtful contributions” when I was a teaching associate at Columbia University’s School of Social Work (CSSW) for Dr. Katherine Shear, who did something similar in her class. Then, when the Covid-19 pandemic hit in 2020, many instructors who had been teaching residentially were forced to begin teaching online. A pedagogical trend developed in which instructors created online discussion forums where students would write an initial post and then make two or more replies to fellow classmates’ posts. While instructors in CSSW’s online school had been utilizing this strategy for some time, many former residential instructors were using it for the first time. Instructors soon discovered that without setting some parameters for what should be included in replies to others’ initial discussion posts, that the forums quickly became homogeneous, with frequent agreements and restating, but little variety. I myself, in teaching online somewhere that I normally taught residentially, experienced negative student evaluations regarding the forums, with students expressing the monotony of having to do discussion forums in all of their classrooms and the lack of learning that came from this “busy work”.
Around this same time, I began teaching for CSSW. I knew I wanted to avoid the homogeneity I’d seen in other online learning environments. Secondarily, I was sensitive to the fact that some students feel more comfortable speaking up in class or writing in the chat than others and also that without permission, some may be hesitant or even avoid disagreeing with others in forums in order to limit what they might interpret as confrontation.
I created a process in which, in addition to drafting community agreements in the first class session, we also draft a list of what constitutes a “thoughtful contribution” in class (particularly in the chat) and also in replies to discussion forums. This is a collaborative process in which students draft the list in Class 1, we review and finalize the list in Class 2, and I begin using the list for grading in Class 3. Students have shown appreciation for having input over this part of the grading process and for creating a classroom environment that values quality of contributions over quantity. Most of all, I have seen a change in discussion forums in the LMS and chats in Adobe. Now, students pose more questions, add more examples, and respectfully disagree and offer different perspectives. This leads to more interesting classes and greater learning from one another.
Technical Details and Steps
Step 1: Introduce the concept of “thoughtful contributions” in Class 1.
Within the first 15 minutes of Class 1, just after drafting a list of community agreements, I introduce the concept of “thoughtful contributions”. I do this by first showing a slide as part of my slide deck in Adobe Connect that contains a Tweet with a fictitious, humorous discussion forum reply in which the “student” expresses agreement with a discussion forum post (see Image 1). I read the Tweet on the slide and explain that this was a joke Tweet that circulated during Covid-19 amongst instructors new to using discussion forums as an educational tool. Then, I ask for students to put their thoughts in the chat about what is wrong with this discussion forum reply and what could have been done better. Students will write in comments like, “The student replying doesn’t add anything further to the discussion” or “The student is simply restating what the other student said” etc. (see Image 3). I then read through the chat out loud, summarizing and commenting on what the students have written.
Step 2: Launch an open-ended Poll asking for students’ definition of a “thoughtful contribution”.
After reading through the chat, I further define a “thoughtful contribution” as a comment that moves beyond a restatement or that simply adds a word or two, but that rather adds something new to the discussion. Then I launch an open-ended poll with this question: “What would you consider a Thoughtful Contribution for the online Discussion prompts and for Class Participation?” (see Image 4). After giving students time to respond, we broadcast the results of the poll so they can see what others wrote (see Image 5). I then inform students that we will review their list in Class 2 before finalizing. This allows them time to reflect on anything else they want to contribute to the list, and also gives students who add the class late an option to contribute.
Step 3: Incorporate the “thoughtful contributions” list into a slide for Class 2.
At the beginning of Class 2, just after reviewing the community agreements, I show a slide of the “thoughtful contributions” which I copy/paste from the open-ended poll responses in the participation report I receive after each class session from my Live Support Specialist (LSS), who is the member of my course instructional team that manages the technology for each class session. I ask students to use the green thumb Adobe Connect status icon once they have reviewed the list and are in agreement, and to enter any further contributions to the list or comments/questions about it into the chat (see Image 6). I then explain that I will put the “thoughtful contributions” criteria into the assignment descriptions on the LMS for all future live class participation assignments and all future discussion forums. I also tell them I will put the list in the syllabus and that I will begin grading using the criteria in Class 3.
Step 4: Integrate the “thoughtful contribution” criteria into LMS and syllabus.
In between Class 2 and Class 3, I integrate the “thoughtful contributions” criteria into the LMS descriptions of live class participation and discussion forums (see Image 2). I also integrate the criteria into the syllabus. Here are some examples of the finalized list of “thoughtful contributions” criteria from three different courses. Here, you can see how the differences in responses reflect the different student needs and personalities in each class.
- Asking for or giving relevant examples
- Asking a question to further the discussion or to clarify
- Acknowledging the discussion (whether you agree or not) and then giving your personal, thoughtful opinion; respectfully critiques and adds meaningfully to something someone else said
- Providing an alternative lens from which to look at an issue, subject or topic
- Offers an original insight, observation or idea
- Adding perspective from personal or professional experience
- Connecting thoughts/opinions/observations to class material
- Giving encouragement/validating a person's experience while also adding new insights/information
- Connection to the materials/reading
- Brings new learnings/insights not already presented, information based on diverse backgrounds and experiences
- Ongoing dialogue-elaborating and asking each other questions
- Information that could be helpful towards the program
- Testimonials, connecting to personal or professional experience
- Providing reasoning behind answers and engaging in critical thinking
- Counterpoints and respectful critique
- Tying in resources or current events
- If agreeing with someone, add an additional thought, question, or deepen the discussion without diverting
- connecting your personal experience to theirs
- giving more clarification including details
- Offering a new perspective
- reflection and expansion on ideas and thoughts
- challenge (politely stated) to something I say, to get me thinking and to help me see different perspectives
- sharing any thoughts or ideas that haven't been mentioned or adding onto what has been
- Relate to the readings
- offering new perspectives or sharing personal lived experience if comfortable
- Pose engaging questions
- Answer “why”
- sharing your experience or authentic knowledge
- Relate to professional experience/field placement
Step 5: Remind the class in an Announcement prior to Class 3 that the “thoughtful contributions” criteria will now be used.
I send a weekly Announcement through the LMS in between classes to summarize the previous class and to preview/remind about the upcoming class. In the Announcement prior to Class 3, I remind students that beginning with that class, I will be using the “thoughtful contributions” criteria to evaluate their discussion forum replies and the chats they make as part of their live class participation grade.
Step 6: Check in with students who are not meeting the “thoughtful contributions” criteria.
Occasionally, a student will struggle with meeting the “thoughtful contribution” criteria, particularly when using the chat feature in Adobe Connect. I will discuss this with a student as soon as I notice it. Usually, the student says it is because they have trouble splitting their attention between the chat feature and listening to class. In these cases, I suggest they either make a verbal contribution instead, or that they draft a “thoughtful contribution” prior to class and then copy/paste it into the chat at some point during class when it seems relevant. This helps take the pressure off of multi-tasking for those that have difficulty with that.
Image 1: PowerPoint slide used in Class 1 introducing the concept of a “thoughtful contribution” (with joke Tweet).
Image 1 Alt-text: This is an image of a slide showing a Tweet posted by Liv Howard about a joke discussion board post. It says, “*discussion board posts* Student: I love bread Me: Joe, I agree with you! I love bread too. I liked the part when you said you loved bread. Great point!” Underneath the Tweet is the source citation, which is http://www.buzzfeed.com/kellymartinez/students-on-discussion-board-posts-who-are-honestly-trying.
Image 2: Display of finalized “thoughtful contributions” criteria in description of Live Class Session Participation Grade assignment in LMS.
Image 2 Alt-Text: This is a screenshot of a page in the instructor’s course site in the Canvas LMS. On the left side of the image are the left-navigation menu items in the LMS. In the center of the image, it shows the description of an assignment titled “Participation Grade for Live Class Session” with a description of why participation matters which says, “High quality participation is valued because it contributes to the learning environment and supports a collaborative, engaged, and respectful classroom atmosphere. It also provides valuable feedback to the instructor and Associate, and supports our ability to understand, evaluate and respond to the ongoing learning needs of students. The following represents full participation: On time arrival ready to participate, present in session throughout (excluding any breaks), chats, polls, contributions in breakout sessions, responds to instructor requests, webcam & mic when appropriate”. It then shows a partial list of the finalized “thoughtful contribution” criteria under a heading that says, “The following constitutes a “thoughtful contribution” in class:” including “Asking for or giving relevant examples, asking a question to further the discussion or to clarity, acknowledging the discussion (whether you agree or not) and then giving your personal, thoughtful opinion; respectfully critiques and adds meaningfully to”. There is a red arrow pointing to that heading to demonstrate where the “thoughtful contribution” criteria is placed in the LMS.
What this looked like in Adobe Connect
Image 3: Adobe Connect classroom, showing the slide with fictitious discussion forum Tweet and imaginary student responses to it in the chat. The chat responses below were written by the chapter author for the purpose of this screengrab. Adobe product screenshot(s) reprinted with permission from Adobe.
Image 3 Alt-Text: This is a screengrab of an Adobe Connect classroom. In the upper left corner, there is a Video pod that shows the instructor (this chapter’s author) and underneath that, there is a narrow Attendees pod that stretches from just under the Video pod to bottom. In the center, there is a Share pod that shows the slide from Image 1, and below that is a Chat pod that shows some imaginary student chat responses to the slide image. The imaginary chat responses read, “the second student doesn’t elaborate on the first student’s post”, “the other student just agrees”, “the student doesn’t add anything to Joe’s post”, and “I like bread too! But I would probably want to say something more about it”.
Image 4: Adobe Connect classroom, showing the open ended poll asking students what they would consider a “thoughtful contribution”. Adobe product screenshot(s) reprinted with permission from Adobe.
Image 4 Alt-Text: This is a screengrab of an Adobe Connect classroom that is a copy of Image 2. The difference is that slightly to the right of the slide, there is a Poll displayed. The Poll reads, “What would you consider a thoughtful contribution for the online Discussion Prompts and for Class Participation?”
Image 5: Adobe Connect classroom, showing the open ended poll asking students what they would consider a “thoughtful contribution” as well as an imaginary student answer given by the chapter author for the purpose of this screengrab. Adobe product screenshot(s) reprinted with permission from Adobe.
Image 5 Alt-Text: This is a screengrab of an Adobe Connect classroom that is a copy of Image 3. The difference is that the poll shows an imaginary student answer to the poll question. The answer reads, “connecting your personal experience to theirs”.
Image 6: Adobe Connect classroom, showing the slide used in Class 2 to summarize student “thoughtful contribution” responses given in Class 1, as well as the green thumb status.The student role below is played by the chapter author for the purpose of this screengrab. Adobe product screenshot(s) reprinted with permission from Adobe.
Image 6 Alt-Text: This is a screengrab of an Adobe Connect classroom that is set up like that in Image 2. The difference is that the slide is titled “Thoughtful Contribution”-What would you consider a thoughtful contribution for the online discussion prompts and for class participation?” and has two columns with student answers underneath. The answers read, “connecting your personal experience to theirs”, “giving more clarification including details”, “Offering a new perspective”, “reflection and expansion on ideas and thoughts”, “challenge (politely stated) to something I say, to get me thinking and to help me see different perspectives”, “Relate to the readings”, “offering new perspectives or offering personal lived experience if comfortable”, “pose engaging questions”, “answer ‘why’”, “sharing your experience or authentic knowledge”, and “Relate to professional experience/field placement”. The screengrab also shows the author as a student participant using the green thumb status icon.
I would like to thank Dr. Katherine Shear for exposing me to the idea of “thoughtful contributions” when I was her Associate and for being a wonderful mentor for use of Adobe Connect and instruction at CSSW.
Martinez, K. (2019, September 21). 17 Tweets about discussion board posts that are brutally honest. Buzzfeed. https://edtechbooks.org/-owD