Monday, November 30, 2009

Reaching a level of quality on the class message boards

When using message boards, you may worry about how you will get your class to the desired level of quality in their written conversations. However, you may find, as I have, that a collective--and constructive--norming occurs in this environment, and this usually happens quickly in the term. While teacher grading and participation will help with this, you may be surprised to find that you are not even the most important factor.

I provide careful instructions to my students about course expectations on the message boards, as I've mentioned in a previous post, and I can continue to say that I have yet to have a student question a grade on a single post. It's never happened. In addition, I've noticed, as have my students this fall (we were just talking about this), that the level of conversation in the course on the message boards improves as the term goes on. Why?

In an environment in which students write publicly, class norms are established among the students in the class, and if you couple this with some informal grading and some participation on your part, you will not need to monitor the boards constantly and to grade to the point of burn-out. The students in the class quickly elevate their level of contribution to the course conversation, reaching a group norm of the expectation of quality--which you can defined in a number of ways--for the written message board work in the course.

I think this is a function of three interrelated factors: One, simple grading of discussion posts as informal work (say, on a quick 10-point scale per post or a weekly holistic grade) provides an ongoing feedback loop for students throughout the term. They get lots of grades, and they are not waiting for weeks to see just what their teacher thinks about their writing. Also, the many low-stakes grades allow teachers to use grades perhaps in that most constructive way: as a baseline for conversation. Second, your contributions--even just a few--help reinforce good posts (and writing) and place you as an interested reader/participant.

But the third factor is an inherent function of the class asynchronous communication setting. This environment provides a strong influence that can change--almost always for the better--the written contributions of students. You may see a progression in several areas:
  • Editorial cleanness: Students quickly come to recognize that sloppy posting isn't acceptable, and only when they're behind will you see a lot of typos and errors after the first few posts.
  • Use of evidence: If you want evidence in posts, ask for it. I do, and sometimes it takes a few weeks, but if you keep asking for students to substantiate their arguments, some do, and it catches on for much of the class.
  • Length: Students realize short posts aren't acceptable. In fact, they can feel cheated by shirkers.
  • Sophistication: The level of the conversation and thinking can increase precipitously in the first few weeks as students see how smart--and interesting--their peers are.
There are certainly downsides we could explore to situations of "virtual social pressure" like this, but for classroom writing and learning, I think we are building a constructive environment. If you want to avoid groupthink, as the teacher you can help not just by rewarding creativity and innovation in the post grades, but by overtly commenting on such posts on the boards themselves. I can tell you that some of my favorite posters were students who took on me and the other students all term.

Now, you can certainly hasten the development of this environment by being involved yourself on the boards, but a lot of this will grow organically (however, if you don't get involved at all, I think you are asking for trouble). Realize that good work in this environment is contagious, and a few hard-working students, sometimes just one, can elevate the course conversation for the rest of the group. Students begin to see the potential, and they go for that higher level not just in their individual writing efforts but in their interactions with each other.