Student Engagement in a Large Lecture Course: Using Technology and Oral Evaluation to Invite More Students into the Conversation—Sarah Robins, Department of Philosophy (2017)
A professor redesigns a large, introductory-level philosophy course to engage more students using the online tool Voice Thread and the traditional philosophical practice of oral communication and argument.
Philosophy 150: Philosophical Communication is a new course designed for potential philosophy majors. The course can be quite large, accommodating up to 240 students, and it was created with a specific focus on oral communication. The original course design was for a class with a cap of 35 students, so oral presentations became difficult to do with large numbers of students. To overcome that issue, I turned to Voice Thread, a tool that allowed students to turn in their presentations online. The technology allowed me to facilitate a productive learning environment in a very large class.
The class met for 50-minute lectures twice a week and once a week for TA-led discussions. These discussion groups are often treated as troubleshooting sessions to clarify confusion; however, I designed the discussion to be a space for students to practice the skills discussed during lectures. I provided specific assignments for these sessions and supplemented the material with short video podcasts. I also changed their assignments so that students could submit oral presentations on Voice Thread and teach each other the material from the class.
The average grade for the course wasn’t significantly different from other intro courses; however, the distribution was different. Students who failed really failed; they simply didn’t participate which resulted in very low grades. On the other hand, the students who were engaged with the class excelled. Moving forward, I am working on ways to better reach out to students who are disengaging from the class.
After teaching the course, I was able to see the variety of ways that students engage with class content. Some students would thrive in the group discussion setting, while some of the strongest VoiceThread presentations were created by the students who were not raising their hands during face-to-face discussion sections. Many of the students found one type of interaction was more comfortable for them than the other. Overall, this use of multiple mediums for engagement led some students to be much more interactive with the class content, and led to a noticeably higher level of investment in the class.
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After teaching introductory philosophy courses for several years, I created a new course, Philosophy 150: Philosophical Communication designed for students potentially interested in becoming philosophy majors. This course can accommodate up to 240 students, and when I offered the pilot course in Fall 2015, 150 students enrolled. PHIL 150 is designed to offer an introduction to philosophical ideas and methods. It focuses on developing students’ ability to understand, produce, and respond to philosophically compelling arguments via their engagement with the traditional practice of philosophical conversation. While this course provides an introduction to philosophy, it emphasizes the traditional philosophical practice of oral communication and argument. Students develop their ability to participate in various forms of philosophical communication through exploration of perennial philosophical questions (e.g., Are there different ways of knowing? What makes for a good life? Could computers have minds? Are we obligated to obey the law? What makes you the same person over time?).
The motivation for this course design is multifaceted. First, the philosophy department wanted to add a course to our curriculum that focuses on oral communication and argument. The oral presentation and evaluation of arguments is central to the practice of philosophy, both in the classroom and professionally. It thus serves as an ideal theoretical medium for teaching students to organize and present material to various audiences, as well as respond to presentations as audience members. The content and format of this course are designed to amplify these features of philosophy so as to maximize student engagement. The ability to organize, present, and respond to an argument in conversation is an important skill, one that is crucial for development within the discipline of philosophy, and in a student’s life more broadly. While it is a skill we expect from our students, it is not one whose development receives much attention in our introductory courses. Instead, our introductory courses (e.g. PHIL 140) focus on the written presentation and evaluation of arguments. By offering this course, we hope to remedy this oversight. Helping students develop their skills of oral communication and argument is important, even for students who take this course and do not choose to pursue further study in philosophy.
Second, by providing an introduction to philosophy that focuses on a different skill than our other introductory courses, we hope to recruit new majors and minors to philosophy. Over the years, we have found that there are—regularly—a small batch of students who are the best and brightest participants in class, but who do not perform comparably well on the written assignments. Since the grade for most of these courses is based on the written assignments, these students receive lower grades than students who write well, but struggle with oral analysis and evaluation. Students often select their majors and minors based on the introductory courses in which they perform well, and so we may be missing out on an opportunity to recruit capable students to philosophy.
Third, our department recognizes that, at present, there are not enough courses available for all students to fill Goal 2, Outcome 2 of the KU Core. PHIL 150 is designed to meet our department needs, but with an eye to meeting this University-wide need as well. It was approved for the KU Core and fulfils the goals stated above.
One of the unique challenges of teaching this course was the large number of students enrolled. When I originally designed this course, I intended each section to cap at 35 students. This smaller number made students’ oral presentations and group projects a manageable possibility; the same approach would not work in a class with 150 students. Technology became the main tool for reaching all the students in this course. All of their major assignments were submitted through Voice Thread, an online, collaborative, multimedia resource that allows people to post images, documents, videos, and audio files. Not only did Voice Thread allow students to submit audio files of their assignments (therefore freeing up class time that would have been spent doing several days of presentations), but we also used it to facilitate smaller group discussions throughout the semester. Each discussion group had their own page on our class Voice Thread and were required to start and respond to discussion threads regularly. It created a flexible, interactive space that visually resembled a conversation. I even posted my syllabus to Voice Thread with audio of me explaining each section, freeing up the time I usually spend in class explaining all of my policies. I could see which students listened to the entire file and give credit for completion. The technology allowed me to facilitate a productive learning environment for a much larger body of students.
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The entire class met for 50-minute lectures twice a week, and then again once a week a TA led a discussion group of 10 to 20 students. While discussion groups are often treated as trouble-shooting sessions to clarify confusion, I designed these discussion sessions as a space for students to practice the skills we discussed during the lectures. I usually provided a specific assignment or task for these sessions and often supplemented this time with a short video or podcast. For example, the first assignment was an argument summary that required students understand and evaluate one point of view. To equip students with these skills, I used my lecture to talk about summarizing arguments and evaluating competing views. I discussed how disagreeing and debating works, what it means to raise or respond to an objection, and how to do it appropriately. Then students practiced these very skills in their discussion sections, debating the topics introduced earlier in class, as well as the readings assigned that represented multiple sides of an argument, and evaluating which argument won the debates.
One of the challenges this class presented was finding the best balance for teaching both course content and presentation. While I needed to cover important material on philosophy and the mind, one of the major goals of the course is to equip students with the skills to dialogue and present material orally. I divided the schedule into sections, spending three days on content, then one day on oral presentation. While this schedule offered a concrete way for me to insure both content and presentation received due attention, there were plenty of times when the boundaries between content and presentation were blurred. This often occurred when I brought multi-media texts into the classroom, like podcasts or short videos. For example, while discussing the content of a TED Talk, we might also discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the speaker’s presentation.
In this course, students were given the opportunity to practice oral representations of philosophical ideas as they teach course material to peers, engage in class debates over philosophical issues, and craft short presentations exploring a facet of the course topic. The course is divided into three segments—for each, there is a distinct learning goal paired with a distinct type of oral presentation. Each of the three presentation styles are demonstrated by the instructor (during lecture) and practiced by the students (during class activities), ensuring that students have ample guidance in preparing for assignments.
In the first assignment, students created a four to five-minute Voice Thread presentation where they provide a concise restatement of a philosophical argument in their own words, followed by an evaluation or commentary on the argument just presented. In the second assignment, students created a six to seven-minute Voice Thread presentation summarizing both sides of a debate in their own words, including a conclusion that evaluated the debate, explaining which side gave the stronger argument. For the class third and final assignment, students chose one of three research questions covered in the final weeks of class. Using the target reading from our textbook and two of the five to six supplemental readings provided on the topic, students formulated an original thesis on their chosen subject. To defend this thesis, students provided a summary of their chosen papers and articulated a set of reasons to support their thesis. In this way, over the course of the semester, students teach material to their peers, engage in class debates, and develop thesis-driven presentations through Voice Thread. In addition, they learn how to incorporate media into their presentations and respond to arguments as audience members.
Prior to each presentation, I provided a rubric indicating how the content and delivery of each presentation would be assessed. In addition to instructor feedback, students were trained in, and received, peer feedback on the latter two presentations (class debate and class presentation). Given that the presentations (and requisite skills) are designed to build on each other, the feedback on prior presentations allowed students to improve their oral communication skills substantially over the course of the semester.
Oral communication was evaluated in terms of content and delivery, as detailed in the rubrics. Presentations were assessed on the understanding and organization of the reading (content) and on duration, tone, and articulation (delivery). For the debate presentation, students were also assessed on the content and delivery of the objections that they raised for and responded to from the opposing side. The final class presentation required students to use media sources, and so included evaluation of the students’ ability to select (content) and incorporate (delivery) these media into their presentation. Together, these three assignments were worth 60% of the students’ overall grade. An additional 10% of the grade was determined by students’ oral participation during peer presentations (as debate moderators and audience members). The remaining 30% was determined by supplemental activities, such as quizzes and exercises.
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Although the average for this course was not too different from other intro courses (around a 76%—slightly higher than previous semesters but only by a few points), the distribution was different. Students who failed really failed; they simply did not participate at all (i.e. never logged into Voice Thread) which resulted in very low grades. This weighted down the class average. At the same time, there were a lot of students who did quite well. In traditional Introduction to Philosophy, there may be a lot of B+ and A- students, but there are usually very few proper As. There were 19 in this class! In other words, the students who were engaged truly excelled, and those who remained disengage, failed. As I move forward with this course, I am working on better ways of reaching out to the students who resist participating and using Voice Thread.
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One of the original goals for adding the oral emphasis in this course was to invite a broader range of students into the philosophy major or minor, expanding it to students who may work best in mediums other than writing. It will be awhile before we can see how many of these students become philosophy majors or minors, but I expect the course is doing work to accomplish this goal; over the course of the semester, I witnessed the variety of ways it invites students to engage the content. There were students who seemed to thrive in the group discussion setting, while some of the strongest VoiceThread presentations were created by the students who were not raising their hands or leading the conversation in their face-to-face discussion sections. While there were some students who thrived in both environments, a lot of students found one space more inviting than the other. I am not sure either of these types of students would have been strong writers, but they found a way to deeply engage the course content orally. In a sense, the multiple modes of expression invited more personality types into the course material. Introverts and extraverts alike were granted the space to enhance their communication skills.
After teaching this course, I also started to recognize important similarities and differences between receiving written and oral work. For example, when asking students to give reasons why they support a view, introductory students often respond with phrases like, “I didn’t like the article,” or “the idea confused me.” Of course, these are not reasons, and, as instructors, we try to help our students learn the skills to articulate their reasons. I discovered that the conceptual leap of being able to articulate valid reasons for supporting a viewpoint is difficult to reach in both written and oral work. At the same time, the students submitting oral work learned to jump over this hurdle more quickly. There are a couple of reasons for this. In some ways, ideas are more understandable when they are communicated orally; for example, I do not think that a transcript of a good oral presentation would be a good paper necessarily, but it would be a draft of a good paper. In addition, talking through their ideas requires they have a firmer grip on the ideas being expressed. For example, a student might write a sentence that makes no sense when read aloud, but they cannot get away with these types of blunder when doing an oral presentation. The fact that they were using their own voices almost demanded that they take the work more seriously. In this way, I saw students doing a better job of trying to make sense of their ideas, and I did not necessarily expect this.
The end-of-semester evaluations were positive overall and slightly higher than I typically have with big classes. This was especially noteworthy in light of the fact that we experienced a lot of glitches and technical difficulties over the course of the semester the first time around. Overall, my general impression is that students remained more engaged for more of the semester in this course. In my experience teaching larger lecture classes, around the middle of the semester students are half asleep, on their computers during class, and generally not paying attention. This semester, students were consistently asking questions, sticking around after class to talk, and sending me emails with videos related to class content. In addition, end-of-semester evaluations showed that my students saw me as more enthusiastic about teaching this course than evaluations from previous semesters indicated. From my perspective, my level of enthusiasm did not actually change at all; instead, this data suggests to me that these students themselves were more engaged with what was being given to them.
Some reasons I credit for higher student engagement this semester are the use of multiple mediums, contemporary work by living philosophers, and the use of technology. Students responded very well to the podcasts and videos I assigned. I no longer consider these mediums as less academic; some of their best work was composed in response to these genres. It also helped that there are really excellent podcasts that align directly with the content of this course. For example, one of their assignments was to listen to an episode of Radio Lab and then comment on how it intersects with a paper we read by Descartes, deciding whether or not the out-of-body experiences described in the podcast help or hurt his argument. These mediums invited students into an ongoing, current conversation, and they prompted excellent work.
Another advantage that drew them into the conversation was that I tried to choose content by living philosophers, emphasizing to students that these are ongoing philosophical questions. I told them that by studying these essays, reading about these questions, and expressing their own views, they were doing philosophy—they were a part of a conversation that is unfolding right now. While someone could teach this same course and assign texts that engage ancient views, I am not sure it would have the same affect.
Furthermore, the use of the technology VoiceThread helped manage the process of facilitating and managing interactive activities in such a large class. It provided the space for students to listen to each other’s ideas to some extent and engage in a bit of dialogue. VoiceThread allowed us to get as close to facilitating a back-and-forth conversation as we could in a class this large. In addition to cultivating more conversation between students, Voice Thread enabled myself and my TAs to provide quick, consistent feedback on smaller activities. While Voice Thread does not yet have an option for providing private, direct feedback on student posts (although, the technology is continually adapting, and hopefully this will become an available option soon), it does allow instructors to leave quick, conversational comments on student posts, so each student received a brief note of feedback on the ideas they submit to VoiceThread. They received a notification that their instructor had left them a comment, and instructors could see when a student had read it, as well. In other words, it enabled a high level of engagement for such a large class.
Like most technology, Voice Thread presents a few complications as well. For example, as mentioned above, some students in the Fall 2015 class remained hesitant to engage the new technology. At the beginning of the semester, I reminded them that they had learned Microsoft Word in order to write their papers, and encouraged them that Voice Thread would be relatively easy to learn. While most students learned and used the technology just fine, not every student was on board, and these students suffered because of it. In light of this, the next semester I taught the course, I became more intentional about providing some exercises early in the semester designed exclusively to teach them how to use the technology. Some people did not know how to turn on the microphones on their computers, for example, so now I do an exercise where they learn this skill for 1% of their grade, instead of letting them figure this out at midnight the night their project is due.
While teaching this course in Fall 2015, I also realized I needed to make revisions to some of their projects. Originally, I wanted their second major assignment to be an actual debate taking place between four students. This turned out to be a logistical nightmare; the number of students in each discussion section varied, and, in order for every group to have time to engage in a full-length debate, some students would have to present before we had discussed all the material in class. Instead, I adapted this assignment into a VoiceThread project where students read a new debate, presented both sides, and decided which side made the stronger argument. In a small class, I think I would have been able to figure out a way to grade the actual debate, but there was no way in a class of this large size. In addition, as I created and assigned the third and final assignment—a thesis driven, eight-minute research presentation engaging three really difficult articles—I realized this project was a huge task for an intro level course. While some students knocked this project out of the park, a good portion of students struggled, and I had to curve the grading. The following semester, Spring 2016, I did a much better job of scaffolding this assignment.
I saw a greater amount of student investment while teaching this class, and I credit a lot of this to assigning students oral activities and assignments through Voice Thread. Anytime you can get a student talking to you, you get them invested. Of course not everyone was invested, but a lot more of them were than would have been otherwise. They were proud of the work they created. Creating sophisticated online presentations is a real oral communications skill for the 21st century, and one that is as important as giving a speech, if not more, to their futures. So many students left this class believing they can do philosophy, and for good reason.
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