Academically Productive Talk in a College Classroom

By Katie Rybakova and Kate Cook Whitt

The classic image of a college classroom often includes a professor standing at the front of a room or hall, often standing near a chalkboard or projector screen, lecturing to a room full of 30 to 100 students diligently taking notes. This model of instruction, often referred to as direct instruction, however, is grounded in somewhat-outdated theories of learning behaviorism and cognitivism. Although higher education has lagged behind in shifting pedagogical approaches, professors and departments are beginning to make shifts to teaching and learning in higher education to reflect the research in constructivism and social constructivism. Essentially, this means that we know, as scholars, that teaching and learning is most effective when students are actively involved in the learning process and are exposed to learning experiences in which they construct their own understanding of core disciplinary ideas. Furthermore, the ideas of social constructivism rest on the concept that learning is inherently social and requires constant communication among and between peers, not only instructors.
Here we share our approaches to academic discourse within an environment that caters to a population including first-generation college students at Thomas College, with the caveat that these forms of academic discourse add an unconventional twist. Academic discourse is one of the ways in which to attend to the needs of a constructivist classroom and allows for students to engage in rigorous, active learning.

Types and forms of academic discourse

Academically productive talk with “Talk Moves.” In an effort to support K-12 science teachers in facilitating academically productive science discussions, Sarah Michaels and Cathy O’Connor identified four goals for productive talk and an associated set of nine “Talk Moves.” Click here for an introduction to the moves and here for a list of the goals. Although the moves were originally developed for facilitating K-12 science discussions, they can be used across disciplines and grade levels to support students as they engage in academically productive talk. In my undergraduate Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics (STEAM) courses, I often engage students in academically productive talk using the talk moves.

When setting up a whole-group discussion, I begin by framing the question for the discussion. The question is centered on a complex phenomenon that is difficult to explain. The first discussion about a question is often a discussion focused on sharing initial ideas. In such discussions, students work to share their current understanding of and questions about the phenomenon. I prompt students to share their thinking and to engage with the thinking of others by using talk moves. Students then engage in a series of investigations and sense-making discussions in which they slowly gather evidence to help explain the phenomenon and collaboratively make-sense of their evidence. Often these discussions involve students arguing from evidence and agreeing or disagreeing with each other. Again, I support students in deepening their reasoning about the topic by using talk moves. Finally, students engage in a whole-group consensus discussion in which they co-construct an explanation, based on evidence, for the phenomenon.

For instance, our question in a recent series of discussions was, “How do wind chimes make sounds that we can hear?” This is a fairly complex scientific question that can be subdivided into several sub-questions: How do wind chimes make different sounds? How does sound travel? How can we hear different sounds? Prior to our first discussion, students worked in small groups to create explanatory models of their initial ideas about the phenomenon. After creating their initial models, students arranged the room into a circle so that every student could see and hear every other student. We then established cultural norms for productive discussions. Such norms included “agree or disagree with the idea, not the person,” and “defend ideas with evidence.” We discussed the norms and posted them so that students were always reminded of the norms. Next, I allowed students time to view the models created by other small groups. Then, we began the discussion with the goal of sharing initial ideas about the phenomenon. In addition, we captured questions that we had about the phenomenon. By the end of the discussion, students realized that they had many questions about the phenomenon and that they needed to ground their initial ideas in evidence. From this discussion grew a need for a series of investigations to gather evidence about the phenomenon.

Next, students engaged in a series of investigations to make sense of the phenomenon. For instance, students filmed ultra-slow motion images of clappers striking wind chimes. After every investigation, we re-grouped into a circle discussion to develop an explanation for the sub-question we were working on. Prior to each discussion, students worked in small groups to model their ideas and evidence on chart paper, examined models developed by other groups, and then argued from evidence. During whole-group discussions, I facilitated when needed and documented the group’s consensus model on chart paper. The smaller consensus discussions culminated in a consensus discussion aimed at explaining the phenomenon as a whole. In this discussion, we worked from all previous drafts of models presented until students had developed a model that they felt was grounded in evidence and could adequately explain the phenomenon.

When students were first asked to engage in this kind of academically productive discourse, they were hesitant. Many had never said more than a few words in their college courses and were rarely asked to share their thinking or current understanding on a topic. The first discussion involved a great deal of wait time and facilitation on my part. As students started to learn how to participate in the discussion, however, they began to share their ideas much more willingly. By the final consensus discussion, students had started to engage in productive discussion aimed and sense-making and I only occasionally jumped into the discussion to help refocus or redirect. Through this process, the students shifted from receivers of knowledge to active constructors of knowledge. They learned to publicly share their ideas, even when those ideas were developing or partially formed. Students became willing to share both what they knew and what they didn’t know so that they could productively co-construct understanding around a complex phenomenon.

Socratic circle with backchannel. As part of an Introduction to Literature course, my students engaged in an active discussion regarding each novel they read. The guidelines were minimal—students were given guiding questions and asked to complete a “one-pager” front and back analysis of the text as a whole using a critical lens of their choice, which could be used during the discourse. I intentionally sat outside the circle set up in class, marking down interesting ideas and participation—not with the intent to tell learners they are “right” or “wrong,” but rather to comment on them individually once the discussion concludes (which occurs naturally). The class was set up with two circles—a large circle of tables encloses a small table in the center. The “inner circle” had room enough for about four to five students, and these four to five students engaged in verbal discussion that is completely self-dictated. Those in the outside circle could raise their hands to contribute (the inner circle selected those who get called) and contribute to a backchannel through a website called Today’s Meet, which essentially functions as a secondary discussion but online in a so-called “chatroom.” The backchannel was projected live on the screen and updated automatically as those on the outside circle shared their thoughts. The goal was self-driven academic discussion and analysis of the text at hand with little to no instructor facilitation. Each Socratic circle discussion lasted about 45 minutes and ran the gamut of Reader Response analysis to complex Marxist, Historical, Feminist, Biographical, Psychoanalytic, and Formalist critiques.

The above pedagogical snapshot sounds effective and engaging; students are actively participating in discussion, self-propelling analysis and different perspectives, and engaging in analytic exchanges where not all perceptions and opinions are the same, thus allowing for the practice of critical yet respectful exchanges. The instructor functions as a sounding board for academic analysis and helps facilitate the preparation for the Socratic circle but ultimately allows learners the freedom to express their opinions without becoming the so-called “sage on the stage.”

To be fair, not all Socratic circle discussions are as fruitful as others, and in practice, academic discourse is not linear in nature. In fact, learners quickly realize the natural shifts and repetition in conversation that occur. Sometimes, a shift includes a differing perspective and adds to academic discourse depth. In other instances, the shift is purely tangential in nature; it’s up to the learners to recognize this tangent and pull themselves back on track to academic discussion. This typically occurs more quickly than one would anticipate, as either someone on the backchannel “checks” the inner circle or someone out of the inner circle comments on the tangent. The academic discourse that occurs combines interest, text-to-self connections, text-to-world connections, and analytical critiques. Consider the following short narrative that depicts this discourse in a live setting (with real names changed).

We’ve used the introductory text Unwind by Neil Shusterman as part of a dystopian literature unit. Unwind showcases a world in which children under age 18 can be “unwound,” which means they would be harvested for parts and organs if the parent turns their child over. An inner-circle participant, Luke, asked the inner circle if the technology to be unwound existed now in society, what would stop people from using this technology? The backchannel blinked with new commentary as those on the outside circle responded to Luke’s question, while those in the inner circle quickly dismissed the question as moral and ethical in nature—something that would be ethically wrong and so would never occur. Luke continued to push, but isn’t that what happened in Unwind’s society? How did they believe that it was OK to do that?

Sandra interjected—it’s a dystopian novel, she said, based on the theme of silence that class had one over the the week before and the masses would rather be silent then get “chopped up.” The backchannel harbored surprised-face emojis and a few tangential comments regarding the conversation in the inner circle. “But what about Risa?” asked Tommy. The inner circle turned to him (notice that the conversation is directed to those in the inner circle, not to the instructor). “Risa was a character that stood up for the unwinds at the end.” Several inner-circle participants spoke up at once. “It kind of connects with my feminist critique …” Mark noted. “But she was getting unwound herself, she had to speak up …” Tommy countered. Leyla used the short silence to continue her connection to the feminist critique she wrote for her one-pager…

As the conversation continued, I took note of those who spoke with a checkmark. Many at this point had at least 20 checkmarks by their names. I kept an eye on the backchannel too, marking down participation and points I though had not been made yet. About 40 minutes into the completely self-propelled conversations, the discussion fizzled out. The inner circle turned expectantly to me. I smiled and commented on this. We finished the class by debriefing their conversations and considering backchannel comments we may have skipped over. We discussed how well we analyzed the text, how well we encouraged others to pitch in their ideas, and how well we continued to speak about the novel in an academic way. The learning that occurred was engaging yet productive. Even those who are shy or uneasy when it comes to speaking up felt “heard” through the backchannel and mentioned in written exit tickets their consideration of becoming a participant in the inner circle when they gather their confidence. These learners are not only talking about novels—they are learning how to engage in this kind of discourse.

Small group discussion with Livescribe pens. A small-group discussion allows for depth in discussion without the pressure of contribution in a whole-class setting. The digital component of these small groups through the use of the Livescribe pen allows for two things—stronger facilitation for group work that tends to get off-track often and a way to assess how learners think critically out loud. What the Livescribe pen does, plus the Livescribe dot paper given to each group, is record the discussion the learners are having. They jot down notes to the prompts listed on the dot paper (and audio-recorded beforehand) while they think out loud as to what those prompts mean. This version of academic discourse is particularly effective to listen to as a form of assessment as it allows me to track the way the learners are problem solving and approaching each prompt. Each prompt is loosely connected to the text and intentionally vague. The prompts force learners to first interpret the meaning of the question and then think out loud together to brainstorm a solution. I then keep track of these forms of discourse while also freeing myself to move around freely as the discussions are occurring. This technology allows me, once I upload a “pencast” onto my laptop (which is essentially an audio-rich PDF document), to click on a particular note and then go to that particular place in the dialogue. The clarity of thought and the brainstorming that occurs within these small-group environments shows continuous progress throughout the discussion. It really is like having five instructors in the room.

Much like with the Socratic Circle pedagogical overview, this above snapshot does little to reveal the natural reactions to such a pedagogical approach. Some participants took longer to figure out the technology itself than having the discussion, while they ultimately were able to function with the Livescribe pen, the academic discourse these groups engaged in was technology-driven, not novel-driven. Others simply did not like to be audio-recorded; they felt like they needed to come up with a “great answer” instead of thinking the answer through out loud. Others preferred this kind of pedagogical approach. They felt like in Socratic circles they did not feel comfortable speaking up, but were comfortable in a small group. They did not mind the Livescribe pens and, in fact, thought they were “cool.” Overall the use of the Livescribe pen does more for the instructor and less for the learner. The learners simply begin to understand how to use the tool and it does not teach them any 21st century literacy skills. That being said, the tool’s success in the ability to assess thinking trajectory allows for the instructor to both formally and informally assess the way the learners approach critical analysis. It also allows me to see which learners are capable of taking risks in their thinking aloud, as well as those who are not yet comfortable voicing their unfiltered commentary and are waiting to “redraft,” if you will, a polished answer in their minds.

So what?

Gone are the days in which the venerable professor stands behind the podium overlooking his students and lectures based on his notes. We have moved into a time in which students crave engagement more than knowledge, and truth-seeking more than grade-receiving. Who can blame them? As we move deeper into the 21st century, knowledge is no longer held prisoner within the gates of the ivory tower. To use the cliché, it is now accessible through a click of a button online. With the movement into proficiency-based learning, grades are being used only as a motivation factor for instructors desperately clinging to tradition.

Students are becoming interested in asking questions and considering how the information they learn is useful and helpful to them in their own lives. If they aren’t “there yet,” we as professors have the duty to help them begin this questioning. The “so what” of academic discourse, then, is less an explanation of why we should use this pedagogical approach and more a proclamation that we have moved past direct instruction and into education that meets (or should meet) the needs for 21st century learners. Academic discourse is no longer a paradigm that critics scoff at as “just talking” but rather a necessary skill to engage with.

Katie Rybakova and Kate Cook Whitt are professors at Thomas College.


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