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Three second rule: take time for cognition in the classroom

Jared Stein, Vice President of Research and Education at Instructure, looks at how online discussions can keep students engaged

Posted by Lucinda Reid | February 19, 2018 | Technology

Anybody who’s ever taught knows that the few seconds after  asking the class a question can feel like an eternity - until a hand goes up - someone’s engaged!

In eagerness to move the lesson forward, it’s normal to call on the first students whose hands go up - even if those are the same few students whose hands always go up.  But what if we waited longer before calling on a student? What if we force ourselves to hold on, and let those first few hands wait just a few more seconds?

Researchers who have asked this question found that teachers who wait just a couple more seconds between asking a question and calling on someone - from the 1.5 second average to even 3 seconds or more - see increases in the quality and diversity of participation by students.

There are many other factors that an instructor can address to increase student participation in classroom discussions, but extending the amount of time that students have to process information, connect it to their prior knowledge, check with available resources, formulate a response, and then summon the courage to engage is critical. And yet in a face-to-face class, time is a precious commodity. While we can easily extend the time we wait for student responses by a few seconds, it's unlikely we'll ever have enough time in a single session for all students to engage equally, and at a level we want them to using traditional means.

This is part of why online discussions - even for classes that are not otherwise online - are so appealing and productive. By getting students to participate in discussions in an online environment, you add great flexibility to the constraints of time and space. Students read or watch a video introducing the topic, then have the time - and outside resources - that they need to develop and present their own unique response to a question. And of course there's subsequently a fuller opportunity for students to engage with and learn from their classmates.

Many of the downsides of online discussions can be overcome with proper planning (e.g. ensuring that questions aren't just binary - yes or no, modelling how students should engage with peer responses, and bridging face-to-face sessions to online discussions) or with modern technology. One common complaint is that students have to be really motivated to join online discussions - they have to open their computer, login to the LMS, and navigate to their class website just to see if there are any new responses. Modern discussion forums not only work elegantly on native mobile apps, they send out notifications to students when there are new responses.

Another common complaint about online discussions in the past is that you lose the very human, face-to-face experience of seeing and hearing classmates. Modern discussion forums include one-click video and audio recording, so students can express themselves with more than just text.

One interesting correlation we found when looking at the use of video in Canvas discussions is that a post that includes a video is 11.5% more likely to get a response than those without a video. This was a powerful reinforcer for our efforts to make video even more engaging, interactive, and complementary to Canvas with the Arc online video platform.

By removing the constraints of the classroom with online discussions, you give more students more time to compose their responses. It’s another tool in the armoury for teachers in the battle to make sure that every child in a class gets the chance to be heard, and to indulge their curiosity at their own pace, and tech providers need to be at the forefront of making sure it’s something that’s simple to weave into lessons.    

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