Reading assignments are often the basis for understanding much of the information and material content delivered in class. It can often be challenging – and overwhelming for students – to encourage reading and assess comprehension in the absence of traditional face-to-face class discussions.
Utilizing student created discussion prompts as a means for peer review and assessment in the online environment has been a strategy I have employed to transition class-based discussion to the online environment (DiGiovanni & Nagaswami, 2001). By giving students the dual responsibility of generating their own discussion prompt, and reacting to a classmate’s prompt, enforces reading comprehension in a more engaging manner (Choi, Land, & Turgeon, 2005).
The assignment I have adapted to implement this strategy is a weekly memo where the student is required to both synthesize the week’s assigned readings and content and generate a discussion question for a classmate to respond/react to. This interaction is conducted in webcourses via the peer review feature and can be done anonymously or transparently.
Link to example artifact(s)
- Instructor: Roberta A. Fennessy, University of Central Florida
- Course: PAD5336 Introduction to Urban Planning
The Assignment: Weekly Discussion Memos
During the first six weeks of PAD 5336 you will be required to write Weekly Memos which will address the entire week’s reading, including optional, suggested and recommended items. The objective is to synthesize the material rather than focus on individual readings on an item-by-item basis. Memos must be submitted electronically via webcourses and will be subjected to a peer review.
Memos will contain two content elements: (1) general comments and (2) discussion question.
Write a few paragraphs (a page or less) about this week’s material. Identify the ideas you think are most important (even if you don’t quite understand them), and explain why you think they’re important. Give your reactions to the reading. With what do you agree or disagree? Why? How do different authors’ arguments contradict or complement each other? What implications and insights follow from following a particular line of reasoning?
Building on your general comments, write a discussion question to focus our class discussion around. You will also be assigned an anonymous peer review where you will read a classmate’s memo and respond/react to their discussion question.
For your question, select from the five kinds below:
1. Substantive Question
Focus on the single thing you most want clarified. This means you will have to sit back and think about what you’ve read – the commonalities and differences between readings, and questions arising from this synthesis. Explain why this question is important to you.
2. Study Question
Make up a multiple choice question to help your classmates test their understanding of the material. This differs from an exam question in that it aims to enhance understanding rather than test it. As such, it may be more challenging to provoke controversy and thought. Stay away from trivial questions that test rote memorization. Instead, focus on the more challenging ideas covered in the readings or that follow from them. Pose the question and give the answer choices. Identify the correct answer and explain why it’s correct. Explain why each wrong answer is wrong. Finally, explain why you chose this question.
3. Theory Question
Ask about the underlying theory in this week’s reading. Sometimes the theory will be implicit rather than explicit. You may think you know the answer, or perhaps you think there may be several possible answers and you have a good one. You might also ask about something you want to explore in more depth during class. The important thing here is that you think a discussion of your question would be interesting. In a sentence or two, explain why you think this question is important.
4. Research Question
Ask a question pertaining to further research implied by the week’s readings. Sometimes the author(s) will give explicit suggestions, and sometimes you will have to think of research that would address issues raised in the reading. Your research question should lend itself to some sort of original research. In other words, don’t ask something like, “What do other author’s say about this topic?” Instead, you might ask, “how has the subject under study played itself out in Florida”? I do not mean asking this literally: you’ll have to rephrase a question like this to suite different subjects. Also, make your specific question much narrower than each week’s broad scope. If you ask a research question, give a brief (1-3 sentences) description of how you might answer the question.
5. Policy Question
Ask about the policy implications of the week’s material. Interpret “policy” broadly, as “what is to be done?” Don’t feel wedded to government or professional planning although these are certainly legitimate ways to think of “policy.” Perhaps the policy implications pertain more to what community activists, lay citizens, or certain social categories of people might do (e.g., homeless people, business people, minorities, etc.). In other words, don’t assume that only government functionaries and professionals “plan” while everyone else just sits by passively and does nothing about the future. You may already have an answer to the question, or you may just want to explore certain practical implications. If the latter, then pose the focus of the discussion as a question. Do not ask general questions like, “What are the policy implications of this week’s readings?” Instead, ask focused questions that take our understanding to a higher plane. Briefly explain why you want to discuss this question.
Instructor & Student Feedback
The students utilized the discussion prompts they created as the primary means of generating feedback from their peer review. The student-generated discussion prompts were also helpful to me as the instructor in guiding group discussions and debate, both online and in the classroom. I was able to use their individual discussion prompts and highlighting any lines of query that could benefit the class at large.
Students reacted positively to this activity. It gave more focus to their peer review – rather than just providing a generalized comment on their peer’s memos they instead had to formulate a response to an essay-like question generated by their peers. This also prepared them for the midterm-exam which consisted of three long essay format questions.
Link to scholarly reference(s)
Choi, I., Land, S. M., & Turgeon, A. J. (2005). Scaffolding peer-questioning strategies to facilitate metacognition during online small group discussion. Instructional Science. 33 (5): 483-511. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11251-005-1277-4
DiGiovanni, E., & Nagaswami, G. (2001). Online peer review: An alternative to face-to-face? ELT Journal. 55 (3): 263-272. https://doi.org/10.1093/elt/55.3.263