The Value and Purpose of Discussion

On my prior post I mentioned that I’m going to experiment with having my American Government students write posts for, and participate in discussion on, a class blog. In response, Pinky asked a good question:

I would like to see some quality reasoning on the value and purposes of discussion. How does it give support to individual and group development?

I can’t promise quality reasoning, but here’s what I’m thinking. If this is a bit lengthy for an answer, it’s because I’ve been pondering this issue for the last couple of years, as the effects of No Child Left Unharmed Behind type educational reform has become evident in college classrooms.

To tell the truth I’m not too interested in the group development part since a class like this–that fulfills a distributional requirement for students from a variety of disciplines, who may rarely see each other after this term–is inherently temporary and not really geared toward a common, collective goal. If it does promote group development, that would be neat, but it’s not really my goal.

The goal is the individual development, and my purpose is two-fold, targeted toward the all-too-common deficiencies in writing and reasoning skills found in college frosh (most of the class will be frosh, with some sophomores, and a very few juniors and seniors).

Let me illustrate the problem with an experience my high-school sophomore daughter has had. There is an amazing emphasis on preparation for standardized tests in schools these days, because schools are evaluated based on student performance on those tests. In one way this is good–my daughter has already taken 3 or 4 ACT prep tests, so when she takes the real thing, it will be very familiar, and she’ll have learned the strategies for doing well. But this also applies to preparing students for the state-mandated standardized tests. This has two very negative affects: 1) students are predominantly faced with multiple choice questions; 2) they are told “don’t think” (truly, those are the words my daughter said she is told by teachers), because if they take time to think their score will suffer.

Together, multiple choice questions and not taking time to think mean students are not developing their writing and reasoning skills. In this class last term I tried to get students to read prior to class by having on-line multiple choice quizzes that closed before class started, but on the exams I found that they could not transfer their knowledge over to answering short-answer questions that were drawn directly from the multiple choice questions.

So this term I am giving them a set of short answer/essay questions up front (all listed in the syllabus beside the relevant reading assignments). I’m still trying to get them to read before class, by choosing one of the questions as a start-of-class quiz each day, but even more I am trying to get them to lean to think about and write out good answers. And all exam questions will be drawn from those questions; no multiple choice even though this is going to increase my grading time somewhat. I expect very poor performance early on, but hope that repeated practice will lead to development (and I am tossing out the lowest 1/4 of their quiz scores, to reward them for developing the skill and not punish them for not having mastered the skill prior to taking my class).

But I’m trying to figure out other ways to get them to think and write that don’t require too much grading effort on my part,* hence the blog. The required post more obviously works toward that end, but that’s just one item in the term for each student, so requiring participation in discussion is designed to get them thinking and writing on a more regular basis. I have a vague theory that to some extent it’s just a matter of practice, repetition, like most other skills. I don’t expect them all to excel, but I hope that most of them will improve those skills throughout my course more than most students have in the past few years.

I’m not arguing that there was some golden era in the past when all students were bright, eager, well-read, deeply analytical, invariably polite and always well-scrubbed. But in my American Government class (the only class in which I have frosh), I’ve observed a decline over the past several years in these particular skills.** It’s far less pronounced in my upper-division classes, which suggests students can recover. But I think we need to put more emphasis on reasoning skills anyway.

In fact even in the absence of No Child Left Behind, I think we would need to put more emphasis on these skills. Part of that comes from a growing recognition of how few facts we really remember learning in college. I don’t doubt that lots of them are still stuck in our heads years later, and we’ve just forgotten where we learned them, but I’m pretty sure that people who are taught to be on-going learners will pick up more than enough of those facts anyway. And asking students to write short answer/essay questions about, say, the differences between the House and the Senate will require students to pay attention to pure facts such as the different length of Representatives’ and Senators’ terms of office (and some facts, like the minimum ages to serve in Congress, are so functionally irrelevant that it doesn’t matter if they miss them).

This dropping of emphasis on “bits” of education is a little discomforting for me, as in the past I’ve focused on having my American Government students know lots of “stuff.” More discomforting is that the approach I’m taking consumes more class time, so I’ve had to stretch out the time given to certain topics and really constrain or even drop some other topics completely. That’s a hard adjustment, and it can make for uncomfortable moments when your students don’t know what others think they should have learned (I once had a guest speaker in my Presidency class who was really surprised I hadn’t taught the students about Watergate). But I keep reminding myself that there’s less value in teaching them more readily-forgettable information about a larger number of topics than there is in leading them toward competence in thinking and reasoning.

Let me make that clear: I am not talking about the value of giving more in-depth attention to fewer subjects, but about really decreasing the emphasis on subject mastery and shifting the emphasis toward using the course for skill development. That wouldn’t be appropriate for every class, but American Government may be ideal since for the overwhelming majority of my students the federal government will be a continual presence in their lives–they will never cease being aware of it, and all of the factual bits of data they don’t get in my class are readily found on the internet. What I really should be doing is teaching them to reason about what they hear and read about the government, and an awareness that when something doesn’t sound right, or they just don’t understand, that they should, and that they can, find the relevant information and think it through until they can make sense of it.

The other part of that comes from reading discussion like this one by former Treasury Secretary and Harvard President, Larry Summers. Among his arguments is that “Education [should] be more about how to process and use information and less about imparting it.” Other than being a contestant on Jeopardy, just reciting memorized facts doesn’t pay off too well out in the real world. As I tell my Research Methods students, “I know probably none of you will become professional academics making use of these methods, but there’s a good chance that someday the organization you work for will be struggling with a problem that fundamentally is about a lack of data, and I want you to be the person who says, ‘I don’t know the answer, either, but I know how to find the answer.'”

I think there’s been a real shift over the past several years in my understanding of what my real job as a teacher is, and now I’m in the process of trying to figure out what works, particularly within the constraints of my particular discipline. It’s a process of trial and error. Think up an idea, try it. Read about a technique someone else claims to have used with success*** and try it. Or in the case of this blog, pick up on a random comment by my wife and give it a whirl.

So, to come back around to Pinky’s question, I hope–dare say hypothesize–that participating in the blog discussions on an on-going basis–under the constraints that this is an academic exercise on which they will be evaluated–will promote the development of their reasoning skills.  I think a key factor will be whether the exercise really captures their interest, and of course that will vary among the students.  There is always a set that is surprisingly resistant to getting interested in the subject, even though it’s clear that their response is detrimental to their grades, and that can’t be helped.  What I hope to see is a good number who do get interested, and improvement in the quality of discussion over time.  The clearest sign of failure of this experiment will be if participation is very low and discussion remains very desultory.

I’ve used a variant of this technique in my on-line course, posing a discussion question for them to respond to.  Some students rarely participate, others do so regularly; some post perfunctory responses, others sometimes engage in long debates.  But getting active participation in on-line classes is fairly difficult as a rule, and I think that’s because of both the nature of the type of students who take on-line classes (that portion who do so because they don’t want to be in the classroom itself, with all those other people), and because of the distance–the anonymity–between the student and the professor.  So in a face-to-face course I expect a higher level of participation, both because it’s all less impersonal and because I can talk to them directly, whether to say “you’re not commenting,” or “here’s why I deleted your comment,” or “that was an excellent comment.”  If time and attention is available, I can join in the conversations to praise good comments or to suggest how a comment could be improved.  That would be the best method, but time and attention is always a precious commodity.

And to be clear, I don’t see participation in blog discussions as a magic bullet, but as an additional tool, operating at the margin rather than as the central technique.

I hope this over-long answer is somewhat satisfying to Pinky, even though it was so much background on my developing thoughts about the education of college frosh.

* Grading 30 short answer quizzes twice a week could potentially be a lot of work, but I am going to use a technique I learned from my friend PJ, which is just to grade on the GPA scale; a 4=A, 3=B, etc. It takes surprisingly less time than working with, say, a 10 point scale where there are finer gradations, or a 5 point scale in which nice round numbers don’t match up with grades very well (for example, a B+ (85%) is 4.25 points). He sticks strictly to the whole numbers, but I often drop in a .5, splitting the difference between, say, a C+ and a B-. While no items are graded as finely (this student’s B actually reflects better work than that student’s B), across multiple items it all averages out, because sometimes work that is approximately a B- will get a B and other times it will get a C. With this approach, and a clear conception of what you’re looking for in each short-answer question–mostly keywords, whole sentences, and addressing each part of the question–30 short answers can be graded in under a half hour.

**This is a casual observation. I don’t have data. But this is an observation shared by a really large number of my colleagues, both at my school and those I’ve talked to at other schools. The language they all use is very different from the “back in my day” complaints of grumpy old profs. It’s about a sudden noticeable decline, observable even in a lot of pretty intelligent students, that seems correlated in time with the point at which we started getting students who’d spent most of their school years under the new standardized testing regimens.  There is a lot  of talk about this issue these days. Notably, one person quoted in that last article linked says, “Many students are even less ready for college than they were six years ago.” 6 years ago was 2006, and NCLB was enacted in 2001, meaning the students he’s talking about had at least 4-5 years–their whole high school careers–under NCLB’s standardized testing regime.

***These ideas are almost never backed by data, of course, and some of them are probably idiosyncratically effective as a function of the particular prof’s style/strengths or the particular discipline in which they’re used. Pedagogy is, unfortunately, a field that suffers badly from a really severe lack of adequate hypothesis testing, in part, I think, from the instincts of those who go into it (far more touchy-feely types than methodological types) and in part because it’s damned hard to study rigorously given the difficulty of controlling the experimental setting.

About James Hanley

James Hanley is former Associate Professor of Political Science at Adrian College and currently an independent scholar.
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24 Responses to The Value and Purpose of Discussion

  1. Pinky says:

    It was very generous of you to answer my question with such a comprehensive reply. Thanx-a-millyun!! I won’t forget your kindness.

  2. James K says:

    This seems less about the fact of standardised tests than the nature of those tests. The standardised testing we have in New Zealand high schools focuses much more on essay questions, to the point where a year 13 English or Classics exam can be written on a single sheet of paper, since it’s nothing more than a list of up to a dozen questions where the student is required to write on 2-4 of them, depending on the exam.

  3. James Hanley says:

    That’s a good point. Perhaps it’s only because of our extensive reliance on the multiple choice format, but the term standardized testing has become pretty synonymous with the concept of multiple choice. But of course the term in itself is broader than that. And that might be a part of our political problem in debating these issues–people who think public education is failing want standardization for the purpose of assessing quality, while because that standardization has taken the form mainly of multiple choice those who oppose an over-reliance on multiple choice phrase their arguments as an objection to standardization, which makes critics think they’re opposed to any form of measuring standards. Maybe we opponents of NCLB-type testing approaches need to refine our language.

  4. James K says:

    I think the fondness for multiple-choice questions is likely a cost issue. A multi-choice tests can be machine grades, while essays and short answers have to be graded by hand. But then that’s the trouble, people want to have the benefits of standardised testing without paying to do it properly.

  5. Your grading plan (less individual resolution, more samples) is actually a very well-studied method, called “oversampling.” Interestingly, it’s the very non-repeatability of the samples (noise) that makes it possible to extract the higher-resolution results.
    All of your current-generation audio systems, for instance, use oversampling analog-to-digital conversions. That includes cell phones, which average a series of “over/under” tests to get very good audio quality. It works precisely by making the individual samples much simpler to resolve and applying the time savings to doing many more of them.
    I doubt that you want to wade into the math for it, but you could probably design a testing strategy that maximizes testing accuracy vs. grading time with a similar scheme. On the other hand, who knows? Might be publishable.

  6. Matty says:

    I don’t remember the details but a couple of years back I caught part of a radio programme on the history of education and one of the things mentioned was that until the 19th Century written exams were the exception. Instead there was an interview/viva system that allowed the teacher to tailor questions exactly to what they wanted to know about that students ability. I realise this is probably not doable with the numbers of students today but it is fascinating to think how far things have swung in the opposite direction.

  7. James Hanley says:

    D.C., you kind of hurt my brain with that, but I think I sorta get it. I’ll have to ponder that for a while.

    Matty, I have often thought of doing exactly that. I have a class with just 5 students this term, and it’s the kind of class where that would be ideal. The figuring out how to approach it is a bit daunting to me, though, so I don’t know if I’ll work up the courage to take the plunge.

    As is often the case with WikiPedia, the references are golden. However, if you have any electrical engineering factulty they can also lend some clues on sampling theory — which is, when you get down to it, relevant to academic testing.

  9. Lancifer says:

    What I really should be doing is teaching them to reason about what they hear and read about the government, and an awareness that when something doesn’t sound right, or they just don’t understand, that they should, and that they can, find the relevant information and think it through until they can make sense of it.

    Critical thinking is a skill that is difficult to teach. Some people are more comfortable just regurgitating information or following a set “formula”.

    I emphasize understanding the principles of mathematics and physics as opposed to memorizing data and “formulas”. Problem solving is about understanding these principles and them examining the given information and applying the ideas you have learned instead of following a rote series of steps.

    Also it’s important to understand that some problems don’t have solutions. This is often more difficult than solving a complex problem that does have a solution.

    I imagine this is even more tricky in a field that often doesn’t have “correct” answers.

  10. James K says:

    Critical thinking is a skill that is difficult to teach. Some people are more comfortable just regurgitating information or following a set “formula”.

    That’s because real thought – intently thinking about something over a long period, without jumping to conclusions or just re-using thoughts you’ve had before (or heard from someone else), is hard work. They’ve done studies on this and it is physiologically draining like lifting weights or long-distance running. Your muscles may not hurt and you may not be out of breath, but your energy reserves will be depleted by intense thought. The human brain is so metabolically intensive it’s set to run at low power most of the time, because otherwise our ancestors would have starved to death.

  11. Critical thinking is a skill that is difficult to teach.
    It’s not so much that it’s a difficult skill to acquire as it’s a practice that most people aren’t motiviated to take up. Like recreational mathematics or scrimshaw, to pick two others that most people could take up but don’t see as having a worthwhile return on investment.
    Although at the more intensive levels it can be quite energy-intensive, for beginners it really just requires asking the rather basic question: “does this really make sense?” with a priority on following where the facts and logic lead.

  12. Matty says:

    JamesK, does this mean we can use thinking for weight loss?

  13. James Hanley says:

    intently thinking about something over a long period…is physiologically draining like lifting weights or long-distance running

    Oh, that’s for sure. I’m still surprised by how mentally draining my job can be. I find physical labor a good mental recharge.

    It’s not so much that it’s a difficult skill to acquire as it’s a practice that most people aren’t motiviated to take up…. don’t see as having a worthwhile return on investment.

    I think that’s an awfully good point. My colleagues and I are wont to say, when frustrated, that kiids just don’t know how to think. But given the right domain, something that interests them enough, and I think most of them do. Most athletes can really think about their sport. An auto mechanic who blindly votes for Barack Obama because BO is going to give him stuff (or for Romney because Obama’s a socialist) can really think about the process of your car, so as to troubleshooot the problem.

    The difficulty is getting them to transfer that ability into other domains, and I don’t think it’s that those other domains are so hard, but that those students don’t find them interesting enough. That’s partly on them, for innate lack of curiosity, partly on their parents for failure to expose them to enough different things as kids. But it’s also partly on us academics because of how we present information. We say kids don’t read, but lots of them do, whether it’s Harry Potter or Sports Illustrated, and the average–even the above average–textbook is not written nearly so well as either of those.

    I had a talk with a young math prof the other day who teaches our lowest level math class that counts for credit–it’s basically math for the liberal arts. It used to be taught as basic algebra, and the only students taking it never did well in math, so they didn’t have real interest in repeating algebra, so it’s doubtful many students got much real value out of it. This guy has revamped it so that it looks at math in the real world, and it’s not so much a “learn this technique and find all the right answers” class as a “look at how interesting the math of the real world is.” It includes short story readings, a short section on voting theory (made my day!), and so on.

    I have in the back of my mind an idea along those lines for an Intro to Political Science class (currently, almost all of them have 1) a chapter on political philosophy, 2) a chapter on American Gov’t, 3) a chapter on IR, etc. etc. It’s dreadful. I have in mind something that builds up an understanding of the political world step by step, treating everything along the way as problem-solving.Something along these lines:
    1) The idea of social living itself, asking “why do some animals live more solitary lives while others live more social lives; what are the costs and benefits of sociality?”
    2) Leveraging that into some introductory formal theory about conflicting interests, bringing in the prisoner’s dilemma (which, as a social dilemma involving only two people, I see as the fundamental minimum of political science),
    3) Ratcheting that up into multiple player games, social living as a coordination problem, with externalities, commons problems, and so on.
    4) Then focus on the real inherent dangers, using Wilson and Daly’s, Killing Kinfolk. I’d even like to talk about the research showing conflicts of interest between pregnant women and their fetuses, just to emphasize that there’s no avoiding conflict when there are two or more people.
    5) Talk more about group dynamics with reference to the triadic power struggle described in Chimpanzee politics, and either here or later detouring into an explanation of how politics is a topic that is broader than humans, but is found throughout other species in the animal world as well.
    6) Talk about institutional design as our tool for coordinating and limiting conflict. This would be a good point to introduce agency problem, perhaps, touch on Ostrom, of course, and discuss the idea of how to build a government that is not so responsive to the public as to be dysfunctionally paralyzed in decision-making, but not so unresponsive that it can become tyrannical.
    7. Here I talk about genocide.
    8. At this point we can begin to parlay all this into the idea of multiple societies replaying all the coordination and conflict problems seen between individuals, and start talking about comparative politics (differing cultures, beliefs, and interests of differing societies) and international relations. I’d also use a game-theoretic approach to show how organizing societies is a type of arms race, as a better organized society is a greater threat to its neighbors, and this can lead into scaling up society size through mergers or invasions.
    9. This gets us back into institutional design again, on a higher scale, with more complexity due to the conflicting interests inherent not just between the different societies but within each one of them.

    Something along those lines. One value of emphasizing the conflicts of interest is that–as we see in sports, books, television shows, and movies–conflict sells. That doesn’t mean I’d fail to emphasize common interests, but I would point out the conflicts of interest that can undermine achievement of common interest (from the free rider to the athlete who wants to be the star of the team, regardless of how his team performs).

    Of course there’s no book for such a course, and I believe with a basic intro course you can’t just use course packets. For one, most of the things you’d put in packet will be too high level–a whole research article on how promising creates commitment in the prisoner’s dilemma has far too much about the method to hold intro students’ interest, so that needs to be reduced to the results, and incorporated with other relevant research results (the effects of talking, of an option to exit the game, of gender and beauty of the participants, etc.). For another, I think the ideal book for intro courses is something a lot of students would find a) inexpensive enough, and b) interesting enough that they decide to hang onto it.

    So that means I need to write it myself. And the big question, besides the time commitment, is whether I am the right person to do that. In some ways I think I am. I have an innate interest in popularizing political science ideas–as has been done so well with economics and biology, for example–and I also have come to realize lately that I have a particular knack for putting together discrete bits of information and writing a compelling explanation for all of them. That does worry me some. I think of Malcom Gladwell’s writing, and the guy is such a phenomenally good writer that I can almost believe what he writes…but I think he doesn’t really delve deeply and consider contradictory explanations. It all ends up sounding a bit too pat. I’d hate to discover that my knack is just writing compelling, but ultimately shallow, explanations.

    Anyway, thanks all for bearing with my many rambling thoughts on education. I think I’m at some sort of cross-roads in my career. A mid-career crisis would probably be too strong a term, but after years of piecemeal changes, I’m really re-evaluating it all and trying to rebuild the whole structure on the positive elements of those piece-meal changes.

    As always, any responses are welcome. You guys do a great job of providing insights I wouldn’t have thought of.

  14. James K says:

    That sounds like an interesting programme James. Once thing I’d consider at number 3 is a live demonstration of the Public Good Game, that’s always fun.

  15. James Hanley says:

    Maybe add a course fee so they can play some games for actual money.

  16. Lancifer says:

    James Hanley,

    Excuse my ignorance in your field of study but when you said,

    3) a chapter on IR, etc. etc.

    all I could think of was infrared radiation. Probably not what you’re referring to.

    My science dorkiness is showing.

  17. Lancifer says:

    Yet another html fail, shrug.

  18. James Hanley says:

    You don’t understand the significance of infrared radiation in politics? How else are we going to keep the commies from corrupting our precious bodily fluids?

    (Or it could mean International Relations, but that’s not half as fun.)

  19. Lancifer says:

    D.C. Sessions,

    Although at the more intensive levels it can be quite energy-intensive, for beginners it really just requires asking the rather basic question: “does this really make sense?”

    I specifically include “Does your answer make sense?” as step 5 in a 6 step “problem solving strategy” I give to my students.

    I mentioned in an earlier post that I have a “Hall of Shame” for the most absurd answers I have gotten on exams. The most recent was a student, when asked how much $4000 dollars invested for ten years in a 4% annual interest, compounded continuously, account would return, gave this answer, 7.18 x 10^18 dollars.(More money than exists.)

    Pretty good return on your money there eh?

    I doubt they asked themselves if that answer “made sense”. Also I don’ t think many calories were expended on the thought process for that answer.

  20. Lancifer says:

    James Hanley,

    I admire the energy and creativity you put into your class development. It must be frustrating when some fraction of students don’t put in the effort to try, when you have expended so much energy crafting the course materials.

  21. James Hanley says:

    It is frustrating, but the purpose of experimenting with it is to see if I can decrease the size of that fraction.

    I also remember my old history professor who talked about working in a nitroglycerin factory when he was young. All the old guys who had emphysema from working there for years upon years told him, “You don’t want to end up like us, and you’re too smart to stay here. Go get an education.” So I figure at its most frustrating it’s a hell of a lot better than working in a nitroglycerin factory.

  22. James K says:

    There are old nitroglycerin factory workers, and there are bold nitroglycerin factory workers, but there are no old, bold nitroglycerin factory workers.

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