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Students responding to students

September 17, 2012

So far this semester, there have been two whole-class discussions when students took control of the conversation. When students stopped waiting for me to call on them and started responding directly to each other. For some reason I can’t remember what the first instance was but here are my notes regarding the second instance.

The class was working through a PET activity about friction and the increase in thermal energy associated with friction interactions. With about 45 minutes left, everyone was wrapping up the experiments and I told the class to skip ahead to the last two summarizing questions and discuss those in their groups before we start the class discussion. I led the discussion somewhat quickly through the first several summarizing questions until we got to the second to last question – a hypothetical discussion between two students:

Daryl: I think the speed of an object only changes while the interaction was actually happening. As soon as contact with the other object in the interaction is lost, the speed stops changing. When we launched the cart with a rubber band, as soon as contact was lost between them the cart stopped speeding up.

Luisa: I agree that the speed changes because of the interaction between the objects, but I think the interaction only starts the speed changing. The change continues after contact is lost. I think that after the cart lost contact with the rubber band it continued to speed up, at least for a short period of time.

Some notes:

  • I started the discussion by calling on students with their hands up when suddenly one student responded to another student’s comment (loud enough for everyone to hear). The response came quickly with very little pause after the first student’s comment.
  • After the first student-to-student comment the discussion continued with other students joining in on their own (maybe five students in different groups being the primary speakers).
  • The primary speakers were in different groups but located at adjacent tables within the room. Two students at a table across the room still raised their hands waiting for an opportunity to speak. After maybe a minute with multiple exchanges between the other students, I said that I wanted to hear what Ashley had to say.
  • Students picked their own groups at the start of the semester so I don’t think the students at different tables who were responding to each other were friends outside of or prior to class.
  • Students presented several ideas regarding the hypothetical conversation, some concrete and some abstract: Daryl is talking about a world without friction, Daryl is ignoring friction, Daryl is including friction which is a type of interaction, specific references to the rubber band experiment from an earlier activity
  • The activity included a simulation dealing with motion in the absence of friction
  • Students stated their ideas confidently with little hedging.
  • Some students recognized that most people had the same idea about how the world worked and were simply interpreting Daryl and Luisa’s statements differently. (The idea of different interpretations for questions like this all being based around the same science understanding had come up previously in class.)
  • I was sitting down during the discussion. I’ve been trying to sit down during most class discussions this semester. (This is something I noticed the instructors doing during The Energy Project.)
  • I made some ‘wrap up’ statements at the end of the conversation but I think maybe most students already felt a sense of closure from the conversation and were not looking to me for closure as much as they sometimes do.
  • At the end, I said that I like when students take charge of the conversation and respond directly to each other and don’t wait for me to call on them. I had previously referred to my role as a discussion moderator but this was the first time I said explicitly what I like to see students doing.

I was excited while the discussion was happening but I realize I wasn’t really accessing how well students were considering each other’s ideas versus just restating their own ideas. I’m inclined to say that this discussion was more productive than usual because students were highly involved but I don’t have any evidence that students got more out of this discussion.

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