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Time to Think

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

What can in-person discussions learn from online discussions?

Paul was an enigma. He was slow to participate in class discussions. But when he did, his contributions were often quite insightful. It wasn’t that he was shy. In fact, he and his friends played in a New Orleans style street band on the weekends.

Paul was in a class with a heavy discussion component. He wasn’t doing well, due to his low participation rate. But that changed when the course had to shift online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The instructor asked students to participate in an asynchronous online discussion forum. Paul set the tone for the entire discussion with his first post. His posts were generally so thoughtful that they raised the quality of the rest discussion.

When asked about why his online comments were so different from those he typically made in class, Paul commented:

It takes time for me to digest my thoughts. In class, my classmates seem a lot more comfortable commenting on what first comes to their mind. I’m not like that.

How many Pauls do we have in our classes today? Probably more than we can imagine. We usually try to be sensitive to student differences when we teach. But how sensitive are we to those who need time to digest how they think about an issue? This lack of sensitivity to the Pauls in our classroom manifests itself in how we judge discussion participation when we are in-person. When we give tests with time pressure, we are also putting students at a disadvantage who need time for digesting what they think. Paul didn’t have a learning disability for which he could get a time accommodation. He, like many of us, just needed time to think more deeply about a subject.

Remote learning has become a reality in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. With the quick transition to online instruction, there has been a lot criticism about its inadequacies. But, as with many “forced innovations,” perhaps the teaching strategies forced upon us by the pandemic could lead to some positive changes as well. If they allow time for more considered responses, might remote learning discussions become more thoughtful, with people like Paul leading the way?

Let’s think about how we can be more accommodating to students who need more time to frame their thoughts. Let’s question why we value speed of student responses over the depth of student responses. What teaching strategies might work best for students who simply need more time to think? How might these strategies lead to more insightful discussions? How might might we adapt strategies from remote learning environments to work with in-person learning environments?

What if we make room for students like Paul by incorporating asynchronous discussions into more courses, whether the rest of the course is online or in-person? For more on asynchronous online discussions, check out the IF Guidebook for Student-facilitated Discussion in Online Courses (student and instructor editions). 

What do you think? Perhaps you too need time to digest your thoughts.

This post is part of our “Think About” education series. These posts are based on composites of real-world experiences, with some details changed for the sake of anonymity. New posts appear Wednesday afternoons.