October 20, 2006 (Refreshed July 29, 2012)
eCoaching Tip 25: Discussion Wraps — A Useful “Cognitive Pattern” or “Collection of Discrete Thought Threads?”
How do you close out a weekly discussion? Do you summarize key points? Restate a core concept? Highlight an innovative relationship or pattern observed by one or more students? Do you get your students involved in bringing a discussion to a close.
Remember that the weekly discussion forums are a primary tool for knowing what students know and what they think they know. Weekly discussions are also one of the best tools for creating a sense of community. We don’t often talk about how to effectively close out a discussion rather than having it just end with a cloud of thoughts and ideas, but no resolutions or direction. One question to ask yourself and your students, is what idea or thought do your students to take forward from a discussion?
Envision having a conversation with a colleague and you are enthusiastically talking about “how wonderful” the last week’s discussion forum has been. Can you distill into one or two sentences what you believe your students are going to remember or think about or question from that discussion?
Here are two teaching practices for making discussions more memorable and useful in building knowledge.
Summarize the key ideas from the discussion
What are our minds doing when we are learning? Our minds are growing by making new and stronger connections among the neurons in our brains. We are identifying patterns, finding hidden relationships, delighting in new insights, and pondering challenges and questions.
As students are discussing ideas in the weekly conversations, their responses, perspectives, questions and ideas tend to be broad-ranging and dispersed. Often just as the conversation gets to the point of identifying key challenges and interesting relationships emerging, the week ends and a new topic begins. Often the students are left with questions such as:
- What have I learned? What do I know now that I did not know before?
- Have I changed how I think about these ideas? Or about this problem?
- What is next? Are there actions that we should pursue at some point?
- Where has this conversation taken me? Taken our group?
- What are the new challenges ahead?
- What are the experts’ opinions on this question?
- What does our faculty leader think? (It is not important for students to agree with their faculty leader, but it is important for students to know our opinion, as we are a guide to the experts, if not one of the experts.)
The purpose of a discussion wrap or summary is to bring some closure or direction to a topic. This does not mean having answers, but rather identifying the ideas to go forward and pruning to the essential concepts. We know from memory research that we remember very little of what we experience, with good reason (Damasio, 1999) Summarizing a discussion is an opportunity to help the students focus and reflect on the essential ideas and key concepts, to help isolate out key issues and develop useful knowledge, rather than be left with vague recollections.
Effective Formats for Discussion Summaries
The discussion summary can take one of many formats. Here are a few popular ones.
- Create a closing discussion forum labeled “Summary,” “Wrap-up” “Key Ideas” or labeled with a core concept for the week. These forums will help students with course reviews, etc. Faculty who teach a particular course each term can create a template for reinforcing some of the core concepts and then deftly weave in current comments.
- Create a separate word document that captures the key postings of the week integrating these statements with the core concepts
- Create a group summary by asking each student to identify the core concept for themselves from the week’s discussion. The students’ concepts can be an insight, a challenge, relationship, or pattern, or next step idea.
- Hold a live synchronous session with your students and review key ideas from a unit of 2-3 weeks and then create a summary from that activity.
- Have a summarizing discussion and review the concepts from the readings and comment on the discussion and conclusions that ensued.
Getting the Students Involved in Summarizing Discussions
Keep in mind that the creative process of preparing a summary from a week’s discussion requires advanced thinking skills such as analysis, synthesis, questioning, linking ideas, and identifying patterns. These are just the types of critical thinking skills that we desire for our students. So finding ways for students to do some of the summarizing is also an effective learning activity.
Summarizing as a Small Group Activity
Summarizing a week’s worth of discussion ideas can be somewhat daunting the first time around. This is where models and examples can be very useful. To start this process you can model the first two or three examples of a discussion wrap. A next step can be to form teams of two students to develop future weekly wraps. This works particularly well in smaller graduate seminars.
The timing of the summary work is important, as it provides a transition and bridge to the next topic. So, if your students take on the role of summarizer, remember that your teaching or expert voice must be present in the complementary steps of providing confirmation, affirmation or enhancement of the students’ summary. Your opinion is a key element of the community summary from that week’s discussion work.
Value of Summaries – Some Research
Diane Schallert of the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas likes using the format of a separate word document for weekly summaries.She believes that following research supports the practice.
Reder and Anderson (1980) showed that college students remember more important material from reading chapter summaries than from reading entire textbook chapters. In addition, Mayer et al. (1996), showed not only that students remember more of the important material when it is presented as a summary but that they also better understand the material.
Note: There is a short video clip of Professor Schallert sharing her practice that may be available at the www.utexas.edu site.
Summarizing work or guiding summary wraps is part of your teaching presence, as you listen to and support your student’s intellectual growth. Summarizing is also a major element of cognitive presence as the summaries pull together many discrete pieces of information into a cohesive and useful knowledge structure that each student is constructing. As you or your students create these summaries, you are likely to create new knowledge as well. Nothing can be more engaging.
Damasio, A. (1999). The feeling of what happens: Body and emotion in the making of consciousness. New York, Harcourt.
Mayer, R.E., Bove, W., Bryman, A., Mars, R., & Tapangco, L. (1996). When less is more: meaningful learning from visual and verbal summaries of science textbook lessons. Journal of Educational Psychology, 88 (1), Mar 1996, 64-73. Retrieved June 29, 2012 from http://visuallearningresearch.wiki.educ.msu.edu/file/view/mayer,%20et%20al%20(1996).pdf.
Reder, L. M. & Anderson, J. R. (1980a). A comparison of texts and their summaries: memorial consequences. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 198,121-134. Retrieved June 29, 2012 fromhttp://act-r.psy.cmu.edu/~reder/80_lmr_jra.pdf.
Snowman, J. (1986). Learning tactics and strategies. In G.D. Phye & T. Andre (Eds.), Cognitive classroom learning: Understanding, thinking, and problem solving(pp. 243-275). Orlando: Academic press.
Svinicki, M. (2006). The Discussion Class: Interaction Functions. 398T Instructor Handbook. University of Texas. (pp. 133 to 136). Retrieved July 29, 2012 from https://webspace.utexas.edu/mss662/398Thandbook/VIII_DiscussionsUPDATED.pdf
Note: These E-coaching tips were initially developed for faculty in the School of Leadership & Professional Advancement at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. This library of tips has been organized and updated through 2016 in the second edition of the book, The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips coauthored with Rita Marie Conrad. Judith can be reached judith followed by designingforlearning.org.