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Using video to improve student discussions

September 20, 2011

In a previous post, I showed this video of a discussion my students had while I was away:

When I saw this video, I saw so many promising things in terms of physics understanding. I also saw many places where our learning as a class was hurt by talking over one another, and even some side comments that seemed to try to shut students down. I want to help my students develop the skills to approach these board meetings exactly the same way my wifed used to talk about her research group meetings as a grad student in electrical engineering. These are the meeting where insight happens, where everyone is fully engaged in process of discovery and meaning-making, and the motivation to learn and participate comes from the desire to share in that joy of learning, not any need to be graded by me, or external pressure. Ok, so maybe I’m romanticizing the research group just a bit, but that’s my goal.

The way I see it, the only way we’re going to get there is to do some pretty serious analysis of our own discussions and start to see how many of the big ideas of our class flow from these discussions. Far too many students seem content to sit back, daydream, and wait for me to pull everything together with some summary. As a former teacher at a small boarding school, I’m pretty familiar with the Harkness method, which puts the burden for developing a strong collaborative ethos squarely on the class, and I’ve even found a nice rubric that describes how Harkness discussions can be graded so that the entire class earns the same grade, which means that if one or two students dominate the conversation and leave out a few students, everyone’s grade suffers. This is interesting, but I do not want to grade board meetings, to me, they’re practice, just like homework, and I really hate bringing out the grade stick to create the behavior I want to see in my students. But, I do want my students to develop a natural understanding of some of the principles of good discussion that the Harkness philosophy espouses.

So here’s my thought for how to do this, especially with this great 15 minutes from a discussion I wasn’t even a part of. I’m going to have my students transcribe the discussion, and then we’re going to dig in to locate the key moves that pushed discussion forward, as well as the roadblocks that stifled discussion, and them I’m going to ask each student to individually reflect on his/her contributions. My students have already put together a transcript of the above video on google docs:

The next step is going to be to have students go through and highlight in green the key insights that advance the understanding in class, highlight in red the roadblocks that shut down ideas or people, and then highlight in yellow the comments that seem to be extraneous. From there, there are lots of possibilities—I can see students then writing personal reflections on their participation, and adding in comments for alternate scenarios that the conversation may have taken if the student had said/asked something different.

These are my first thoughts about how to work to develop better discussion skills with my students, but I would love to hear your suggestions as well.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Susan Berrend permalink
    September 21, 2011 9:14 am


    We should talk sometime. Your classroom data investigation mirrors lots of what I did for my MSSE two years ago. The transcribing is a pain. An alternative to try is to sit everyone on computers in a chat room like chatzy and allow written discussion. (It is hilarious to have everyone engaged and laughing/chuckling but quiet except for keystrokes). I found it is often richer in content as introverted students who don’t speak, will type. At the end, all you do is print it out. Not the same as a transcription of an oral discussion, but insightful as well.

    • September 26, 2011 7:04 am

      I like the idea of having an electronic chat about out results. That is definitely something to try at some point. Thanks! BTW, what is MSSE?

  2. September 21, 2011 3:31 pm

    Love the idea of having students transcribe small sections. I think the highlighting is a sensible way to constrain the problem. Looking forward to hearing more about how this goes, I might steal it later on in the semester…

  3. Agnes permalink
    September 21, 2011 8:00 pm

    I really think this has lots of possibilities for foreign language. I think I will be trying something soon. I will let you know how it goes 🙂

  4. September 23, 2011 3:07 am

    Interesting. I’m not familiar with Harkness, but at our school we’ve had training in the “7 Norms of Collaboration”, which seem similar but perhaps more concise and easier for students to grasp. You can read more about them here:

    No giant oval tables though! In general though, I love the idea to raise students’ “discussion awareness”. It will be interesting to see if it pays off down the road…

  5. Susan Berrend permalink
    September 26, 2011 8:58 am


    MSSE: Masters in Science in Science Ed. I studied student self-confidence in physics: which components of the course helped/hindered their sense of their ability to succeed in physics. Involved lots of metacognition on their part, lots of survey data, interview data on my part. Fun that you are playing around in the same area.

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