Expanding the Classroom: Using bSpace to Encourage Student-Driven Discussion

Tags: , , , , , ,

Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Ashley Leyba, History

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2013

When developing the syllabus for my History 103 seminar on the Enlightenment, I was faced with a dilemma about my reading list. Traditionally, the 103 seminar is expected to emphasize secondary literature, but in this particular course, where the goal was to discuss the philosophical works of major eighteenth-­century thinkers, I wanted my students to regularly, and directly, engage the primary source material. I wanted them to read Hume, Voltaire, Smith, and Rousseau, and not to encounter these writers solely through the interpretive lenses of contemporary historians. Having previously led discussion sections for an intellectual history course, I knew some of the potential challenges with this approach. These works can be quite dense and difficult to work through (anyone who has read David Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature can attest that sections of it only make sense after several readings!), and lively in­-class discussion is often hindered by the sheer number of possible discussion topics in any given text. In my previous sections, I solved this problem by distributing reading questions that helped guide the students through the primary source material and that structured our in­-class discussions. This worked well enough, but over time it became clear to me that, more often than not, the discussions were a showcase of what I, and not my students, found intellectually exciting. I wanted something more for my students. My challenge, then, was to find a way to ensure that all students felt prepared for discussion and that said discussion took shape in a manner that reflected what they found to be most compelling about our set of readings.

After some consideration, I decided to utilize a strategy from one of my graduate seminars. Each week, I had my students post in the chat room section of our course bSpace site the night before class. Their post was to include a discussion of what they found to be most interesting from the readings, two to three discussion questions for class, and a brief outline of any ideas or concepts that did not make sense to them. Additionally, I asked them to read each others’ contributions before class, so they knew the major ideas and questions around which discussion would be centered and, if necessary, had time to review pertinent sections of the texts. Although I would occasionally make my own additions to these questions, it was the students’ interests and ideas that structured our weekly in­-class discussion.

In addition to better preparing the students for class and ensuring a student-­driven discussion, the bSpace postings allowed me to be a much more effective teacher. Oftentimes, when leading a discussion, you are in the dark about your students’ knowledge of the material and/or what areas of the readings caused trouble. Once I began using bSpace as a site of “pre-discussion,” though, these  issues were significantly reduced. Before class began, I knew which readings sparked more interest and excitement amongst my students, I knew who had not read the required works quite as thoroughly as I would have hoped, and I knew which ideas and writings had proven more challenging. More importantly, however, my students appreciated the important role they played in our classroom. In the end of semester evaluations, one of my students noted that discussions were “never boring” and reflected “our [the students’] interpretations and understandings of texts.” For me, this was the best praise I could have received.