Monday, May 31, 2010

Message board thread prompts (part I)

I'm frequently asked about the kinds of prompts I use to start conversations on my message boards. There are so many ways to get students thinking and writing on the message boards, and below I'll go through a few common thread starters. I'll do this in two separate posts.

Remember that my message board pedagogy is grounded in the idea that we will build the ideas we are discussing as the conversation evolves during the week, and so I need to be a regular presence as a moderator and contributor. The initial prompt doesn't have to do all the work. In fact, I usually start with a very simple initial post and have a "map" of what I want students to learn laid out beforehand; I help guide the conversation based on that map, but students make plenty of interesting discoveries that steer the conversation in interesting ways.

Here are some typical threads that I use.

Thoughts and conversations about readings and class texts. Since many of our conversations stem from readings or other texts, these types of threads are common in my class. I normally begin with a simple, straightforward question: What is the author's main point? Do you agree with that main point? What do you think of the video you watched? Often, these prompts are only a sentence or two.

Course lessons. Plain and simple, the message board can be a great place to teach. Students can review a lesson in a variety of ways--textual materials, audio, video, PowerPoint slides--and then you can use the message board as a place to discuss aspects of that lesson.

Summaries. In first-year writing, we often want students to hone their summary skills. I have done this online by asking students as a class to summarize a complex article, with each student tackling a paragraph. You can use groups (I'll talk about that in the next entry) to break the work up here if you wish.

Stances on controversial issues.
Ask students to articulate a clear stance on a controversial issue; I prefer if they do this using evidence from the course and other sources. Because the message board allows time to think, while their posts may still be polarizing, I find that they are more careful than similar stances onsite. As I've mentioned here, if your guidelines are clear, students will understand what you are asking and will do those things. If you want these to be evidence-based rather than shoot-from-the-hip opinions, make that clear. They will do it.

Online "minute paper." The “minute paper" (1) is a great use of writing in your class: At the end of an onsite class, you can ask students to summarize what they learned, or, perhaps more usefully, to describe what don’t they know or understand. A quick review of these responses will show you what they get and what needs to be covered more thoroughly. You can use a similar strategy with the message boards. In fact, even if you meet onsite, you can save class time by moving your "minute paper" online, which also makes it easier for you to gather and review these writings.

Project/paper topic discussions. I always spend a lot of time on the topic creation stage for written projects, having students talk a lot before they write. We often have spirited in-class conversations about potential topics. On the message board, this can be even better as students carefully reflect on their colleagues' ideas--and they have the entire power of the Web at their fingertips as they offer suggestions for readings and evidence.

Writing introspection/metawriting threads. These types of threads have been successful for me, especially as I have moved into writing about writing/writing studies approaches to teaching, in which we use the students' writing and their processes as the subject matter of the course (2). I ask about how they research, how they revise, their experiences with plagiarism. These threads have been fascinating, and students leap at the opportunity. Why? Well, for one thing, although they read, write, and conduct research in many of their classes, they are almost never asked to talk about the process behind these activities. I think they have a lot to offer to each other in sharing about these activities, which is why I sometimes call these threads “Tricks of the trade."

The provoker. I'm not much of a thespian, so playing different roles in the onsite classroom isn't my strong suit. But online, I can easily take on a different persona; I will write from the stance of a fake interlocutor--such as Dr. Logoetho--taking (what I think of as) extreme positions to get students to keep their cool and dismantle my arguments with evidence and rhetorical skill. These threads can also be a great education in having civilized discourse in electronic communications.

These ideas are for common weekly prompts. In my next entry, I'll talk about a few ideas for term-long threads.

1) John Bean discusses minutes papers in one of the all-time great books about using writing to help students learn, Engaging Ideas.

2) We are increasingly informing our first-year writing curriculum with the ideas that Doug Downs and Elizabeth Wardle articulated in “Teaching about Writing, Righting Misconceptions: (Re)Envisioning ‘First-Year Composition’ as ‘Introduction to Writing Studies,’“ which appeared in College Composition and Communication (vol. 58, June 2007, pp. 552-84).