Using discussions to engage and upskill students

Headshots of Dr Kevin Crosby and Samantha Ryan

Dr Kevin Crosby, Senior Lecturer

Samantha Ryan, Senior Lecturer.

Newcastle Law School 

Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences

What did you do?

Included an individual discussion board task as part of the weekly rhythm of teaching and used this to hone writing skills.  We encouraged student to student feedback and provided a round-up of learning points.

Who is involved?

Dr Kevin Crosby, Senior Lecturer in Law

Samantha Ryan, Lecturer in Law

How did you do it?

We redeveloped a 3rd year module Evidence for delivery in 2020/21.  This previously had thirty hour-long lectures, plus five hour-long seminars assessed by exam.

This year the module has two assessment points: an essay (30%), and a problem question (70%). Each week, along with short video lectures, we added an individual discussion board activity to give students practice in articulating legal arguments.  We also included a second discussion board for a group writing activity preceding each of the four seminars.

The individual discussion board was set up so that students could only see their peers’ posts after they had submitted their piece of writing.  We gave a prompt, asked for a 100-200 word response, and encouraged students to comment on the post of one other student.  We repeatedly pointed out that the discussion board contained excellent contributions by their peers, and that if students didn’t contribute, they were missing out on this opportunity.

Each week, after reviewing the posts, we gave general feedback on the task to the whole cohort, addressing common issues and giving pointers.  The writing tasks were set to give opportunities to practice skills that were assessed in the module’s assignments.

Why did you do it?

This year, we wanted to get more engagement with students throughout the year, rather than only in the period prior to the exam.  The weekly discussion board was as a way of facilitating this.

Does it work?

In the initial weeks, we scheduled time each Friday to provide feedback on each student contribution submitted by the Thursday of that week.  Our expectations were that only a portion of students would engage with the task, and that we would therefore have time to give attention to those who posted.

We were surprised in the first few weeks to have a huge uptake, with over 100 messages on the discussion board (from a cohort of 150 students).

The downside of this was that providing feedback took the majority of a Friday.

Students really engaged and they started giving feedback to each other.

After the first few weeks we stepped back from giving intense feedback and encouraged students to continue to submit posts and comment on each other’s posts.

The total engagement dropped, but we were still seeing 30-40 posts from students each week, and about a quarter provided feedback on the posts that their peers submitted.  For those that continued to participate, the quality of their writing continued to improve.

More importantly, when students handed in their first piece of coursework, we could see that many of the things we had been focussing on in those activities were reflected in student’s submissions, and that the learning had percolated through the cohort.

We see a direct link between the improved quality of student’s writing and this discussion board activity.  Even those who have not participated have been able to benefit from the roundup feedback that we have generated.

Student Voice?

When we probed why engagement with the individual discussion board activity fell off, we were surprised that students said this wasn’t wholly related to the change in our moderation approach.  They suggested that workload was also a factor.

We were unusual in giving students something concrete to do early in the course, but later in the term, as workload increased from other modules, they found it harder to keep up.  Our groupwork component has worked less effectively, and dropping this would remove some pressure.

Students have also indicated that they have valued the rhythm and routine built into the module’s design.

What advice would you give to colleagues wanting to do something similar?

  • Think about the time pressure on you and your students – put sensible limits on what you are requiring of your students and on yourself.
  • Try and find a way to get students into a rhythm of engagement with your course.

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