WRITING PROMPTS THAT PROMOTE DISCUSSIONJanice Cook
Kapi'olani Community College
After teaching for four years in a networked classroom and assisting other instructors with their networked classes, I've observed many synchronous and asynchronous discussions. During this time I've also monitored several student e-mail discussion lists. Many of these were productive discussions, but several were also unproductive in the sense that little or no discussion ever took place. Teachers and researchers are quick to blame the technology or the students for these failures, seldom considering if their questioning or prompt writing techniques could be improved. In a lecture classroom, if the lecturer's first question yields little response, it is very easy to rephrase the question or ask a different one. Most teachers become quite adept at requestioning. However, a networked discussion is different in the sense that the prompt needs to work almost immediately. If a discussion goes astray early, it is difficult to get it redirected. Because most classes have time limits, in my case 50 or 75 minutes, I like these discussions to begin almost immediately. I usually divide the class into small groups which are directed in their task by an initial prompt. I monitor all groups but don't take part myself unless I see questions arising that the students are not themselves answering. Similarly, with the student discussion lists that I manage, I don't take part myself unless trouble arises; time is less a factor in asynchronous discussions though because participants have the time to answer at leisure and prepare as they wish, even looking up information as necessary. My overall goal in both synchronous and asynchronous discussions is for the students to participate freely in the discussions for the purpose of expanding their communicative ability in writing. In such cases the initial prompts must do their work quickly so that the participants can begin the discussion immediately.
Let's look first at the types of prompts that generate little discussion. Any question that can produce a yes or no reply or a short answer, even when you ask that the answer be in the form of a complete sentence, seldom generates a discussion. Usually these questions are seeking factual kinds of answers as students would respond on a quiz. Once the answer is given, the student is interested only in knowing if the response is correct, not in continuing a discussion. Such questions often begin with "Do," "What," "When," :Who," or "Where. Even a question such as this which comes from a student's experience usually generates little discussion. [All examples that follow are from actual discussions in which the students have granted permission for their responses to be used for my research. Any names used have been changed.] For example, "Who would be affected by the new immigration bill?" generated this kind of response.
Who...? Immigrants.Expanding such prompts to include two or more questions helps little in generating discussion. Students then produce responses such as this which are responses to a series of questions about their housing arrangements in Japan.
So what kind of prompts do work? In my experience, short, sharply focused, open-ended questions work best. The focus though depends upon how closely you want to control the discussion. Prompts intended to generate brainstorming, for example, can be kept quite general. I like to use the word "discuss" in the prompt to indicate what I expect from the task. (Early in a semester, we often have a class focused on just what discussion means so students should have little doubt about what I mean. This kind of large group discussion is not always possible in an e-mail discussion; however it is possible for the monitor to talk with an individual about what is expected.)
"How and why" questions sometimes work as discussion prompts if the content is not factual or if the prompt includes an invitation to question the other participants. When the prompt works, students often generate the "how and why" questions themselves.
Prompts that begin with a short definition and then ask students to apply the term to their own experience are especially productive. For example, see below from a prompt about service and a short excerpt of a longer discussion which leads eventually to a different larger discussion of the class service learning projects.
Janice Cook:The topic of a discussion seems to matter little if the prompt is well written. I've seen successful discussions about service, tutoring experiences, writing techniques in essays or short stories being read, classroom behavior, visits to other countries, what it means to be a friend, how their language uses slang, how they feel about writing, etc. Nor has it mattered in my classes how fast the students are able to type or to read. Students who require longer to read or to type do not respond as quickly in the group and perhaps participate less, but they still are able to take part. Of course if the topic is something students should have read in advance, they are seldom able to participate well if they have not read the assignment. The extra time necessary to craft a workable prompt is worth it when a productive discussion transpires.
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