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Engaging students in discussion and active learning

In this video, Diana Laurillard introduces ways in which teachers have used digital methods for formative assessment.
An effective way of supporting students as they’re learning through discussion is to embed the discussion process within a collaborative learning task so that this gives them a practical task they have to do together, even though they’re all online. Yasemin Allsop also works through a detailed description of how to help her teacher training students prepare for teaching primary school children about coding. Her focus is on how to use the scratch tool for children to make digital animations. [VIDEO PLAYBACK] - So when the green flag clicked, I want this character to move 10 steps. How do I test that? I say when the green flag clicks, so I will go. I click on the green flag.
Can you see how small, how short distance is that? And we can then maybe use repeat to make character move more, right? And what we don’t want is we don’t want this character to disappear from the screen. So what we say is if you reach to edge, bounce back, because we don’t want it to disappear, right? And we also want this character to start from the same position every time we click on the green flag. For that, we need to tell the character to go to a specific position. And we use for that code names. Minus 34, minus 17, that means every time I click on the green flag, my sprite, it’s going to start.
It’s going to place itself in this spot, in these coordinates. Let’s see. Can you see? Perfect. Have fun with it. Just think like children, because they really enjoy using this application, this programme. And see if you can go through the same learning process just like children. And just have fun with it. [END PLAYBACK] Scott Hayden has to work entirely online to prepare students for doing their practical work. And so he prepares them for using collaborative real-time synchronous CAD tools, or Computer-Aided Design tools when they’re all having to work online together.
[VIDEO PLAYBACK] - Using animations and dynamic engaging visuals helps our students to prepare for practical work when they cannot physically be in to be hands-on with the practical element of their learning experience. Using collaborative, real-time, synchronous CAD tools, such as this, can help our students to learn the rhythm, the process, the beginning, middle, and end of processes and approaches to the more hands-on aspects of their vocational courses. [END PLAYBACK] And for this final example, we see how Caron Mulligan wanted to help students through the isolation when they were working at home. So she gave them the opportunity to work with other students and participate in a peer assessment process. So they were able to come together.
This is an example from the religious studies course where year seven students watched a little video first, and then were asked to use PowerPoint to create their own presentation on sacred buildings. And then they used them as teams to do the peer assessment process. [VIDEO PLAYBACK] - They were instructed on how to add a new slide, insert their name, photograph, and then add text boxes and arrows to annotate their model to explain its features.
Just leave it nice and blank. And we’re going to make our picture big so that people can see what we’ve done. But what I’d also like you to do as well as having the photograph is also to have some explanations of what you did and why you did it that way so perhaps you could explain why you included a particular room, or why you used that material, perhaps why that design, that part of the design is important for your sacred building. [END PLAYBACK] So this is a great example of how creative students can be with the right digital tools. Look at what they did. [VIDEO PLAYBACK] - And the results from one of my groups looked like this.
So you can see they really successfully added models and their photographs of them. A range of different materials are used and a range of different outcomes. [END PLAYBACK] And then exactly the same approach was used across the whole school in other curriculum areas as well. That’s what’s so exciting about sharing pedagogies and learning designs. They can transfer across subject areas, and even sometimes age groups as well. And that’s what we’ve been testing on this course. Does that really work for teachers? That’s what we need to find out.

An effective way of supporting students learning through discussion is to embed it in collaborative learning.

You can give them a practical learning task they must do together, where they have to discuss the topic in order to create a joint product.

The video introduces different kinds of digital tools that students can use to make their own digital products, and then how to embed them in a collaborative learning task. The learning design on computational thinking in Downloads shows how a collection of tools is used to engage students in active study without the teacher.

Engaging all students in discussion activities is challenging. This is the most difficult of the active learning types because all the others involve the student in doing something practical.

There will always be some students (e.g. students who are shy, those with English as a 2nd or 3rd language, teenage boys, etc.) who may be reluctant to join in class discussions. But as many teachers have discovered, in online discussion groups, where they are able to take their time to think and respond in writing, and not ‘perform’, those same students can become amazingly vocal. With careful teacher encouragement, this can be a way to scaffold their progression to do the same thing in class.

In this step we look at the part of the teaching-learning process that helps students work towards being able to learn through discussion. In Step 2.10 TLAs 1, 2, and 4 offered examples of this.

As the Conversational Framework shows, discussion has a two-fold value to the individual: you have to generate ideas and listen to ideas, ask questions and reply to questions, challenge points made and respond to challenges. All these cycles of interaction require students to engage in rapid succession in different ways of thinking about the topic.

Large classes are a special challenge. Any class of more than 15 is too big for the teacher to be able to ensure that every student has a chance to learn how to learn through discussion, both at class and small-group level.

It is probably actually easier to do that online:

Run a series of online classes, to scaffold their increasing confidence in being able to contribute to a discussion:

  • Begin the process by allowing students to be anonymous in their contributions to Chats.

  • Move later to asking for names, and for everyone to post a comment.

  • Encourage those who tend to be silent with a ‘private’ comment to them.

  • Set up asynchronous small group discussion forums for them to discuss in writing a key issue and decide on what to bring to the main group.

  • Monitor the discussions and offer encouragement and advice to groups and individuals.

  • Move on to synchronous breakout rooms for small groups to discuss in person an interesting question, where they can speak without ‘performing’.

  • Drop into the breakout rooms as you would walk round a class.

  • The final stage is to encourage every student to say something in a class discussion.

Run a special session on learning how to use discussion:

  • Use one of the TLAs from Step 2.10, but start it by discussing with them why discussion helps their learning.

  • After the TLA use Mentimeter or Padlet for them to post their answers to the questions, in three columns: What made your discussion useful? What didn’t work so well? Do you have one tip for what makes a good discussion?

  • Then discuss the points made to raise their awareness of what they can learn from discussion.

Run small group sessions, where students working together in small discussion groups is less daunting than the whole class:

  • The Maths Education Group at UCL-IOE offer guidance for self-study group work in a synchronous session, which includes individual activities along with timed group collaborations and breaks.

  • The Moodle version of the guidance to students is in the Download ‘Guidance for self-study and group work’. The learning design embedded in the session, ‘Teaching of Maths (Worksheets)’, is also available in Downloads, and is on the Learning Designer site.

  • As in most cases, the subject content of the pedagogy being described is minimal here – most references to maths are in the digital resources used.

We asked one of our colleagues, Dr David Baker, who is new to online learning, for his reflections on what he learned from teaching online for the first time. He has some useful reflections on its value, and wise advice on ‘setting the ground-rules’ for discussion in his ‘Case study: Engaging and motivating students’, in Downloads.


Adapt or create a design that at each stage motivates the student to go on to the next activity.

You may be able to use this in your final peer reviewed design activity next week.


What is your experience of motivating students and keeping them engaged? Can you transfer your approaches to digital and online methods?

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Blended and Online Learning Design

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