Building Community through a Discussion Activity

The following write-up was originally published in the 2020 Special Section: Teaching during a pandemic in the Literacies and Language Education: Research and Practice journal as well as my personal blog.

Introduction

With coursework being online this semester due to the global pandemic, a discussion activity was implemented in a foundational reading and writing course in order to give first-year students a place to build a supportive community of learners and discuss issues they may face while learning online.

The discussion activity was designed based on Self-Determination Theory (SDT), specifically, a sub-theory called the Basic Psychological Needs Theory (BPNT) which states that only when basic needs are satisfied can individuals achieve their highest potential with regard to development and well-being (Deci & Ryan, 1987; Ryan & Deci, 2017). Three integral parts of BPNT are: competence, the sense an individual has of being capable of doing something; relatedness, the feeling of being connected to others within a community; and autonomy, acting in a manner that is fully-informed, self-endorsed, and congruent with internal values and interests (Ryan & Brown, 2003).

In a previous iteration of this activity in a traditional face-to-face context, there was evidence that suggested this type of activity could help students foster peer communities which promoted self-awareness and feelings of competence in speaking and reflective abilities (Yarwood et al., 2019). Since students would be unable to make connections with their peers in a face-to-face classroom, creating opportunities for them to do so in synchronous meetings seemed really important to building an autonomy-supportive classroom environment in which students would feel confident and comfortable enough to share their learning with peers. With coursework online for the Spring 2020 term, building peer relationships and learner autonomy seemed even more crucial than in a more traditional semester.

While initially designed to bridge the gap between classroom interaction and English use in the Self-Access Learning Center (SALC), the following discussion-based activity was integrated into the online reading and writing course in the hopes of fostering a supportive and self-aware community of learners among students.

The Activity

Prior to the start of the term, discussion prompts related to situations and issues students may encounter in an online language class environment were developed. Some prompts asked students to consider aspects of their language learning while others asked them to reflect on the challenges and issues that arise with learning online. The prompts included a situation or general question followed by a few additional questions to encourage discussion and deeper engagement with the topics. Figure 1 includes two example prompts students were asked to discuss.

Fig. 1
Do you fear making mistakes in English? Why or why not?
When other people make mistakes, how do you feel/react?
Who do you fear making mistakes in front of the most? Why?
What can you say to yourself to reduce the fear? (E.g. I’m still learning. It is normal to make mistakes.)

You want to book a 15-minute meeting with an ELI teacher. How can you prepare?
What’s the scariest thing about speaking to a new person? How can you make it less scary?
What topics do you feel comfortable talking about? Why?
What do you want to achieve during the conversation?

At the beginning of the semester, students engaged in an activity to explore useful phrases and language for English interactions in the classroom. They compiled a discussion language resource that they could reference throughout the term as needed, and I then provided them with my own list to complement their own. Students also participated in a practice discussion to get used to this type of interaction in breakout rooms in Zoom.

Next, students were asked to participate in small group discussions at the beginning or end of each synchronous online class meeting. The small groups remained the same for three to four weeks at a time in order to encourage greater connectedness among students. The discussions were held during 15 class periods over about eight weeks during the semester.

In addition to the discussions, students were asked to reflect on their interactions during the activity using a Google Form immediately following the discussions. The purpose of this was to encourage further engagement with the topic and give students a space to express ideas they may not have been able to express during the activity.

Discussion

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the time set aside for these discussions allows students to interact and engage with each other in meaningful ways. Students have remarked that the discussions are one of the most useful parts of the course. Through the discussion activity, students can get to know each other, learn about resources available to them, and perhaps validate their understanding of how to deal with various situations that may arise during the semester.

Possible variations of this activity might include: asking students to develop discussion questions related to various prompts to better align with topics covered in your course, asking students to record short reflection videos instead of doing the written reflections in the form, or incorporating extended engagement with the topics through individual research or exploration of facilities such as the Academic Support Center and other available resources.

Conclusion

The discussion activity described here offers students an opportunity to build relationships with their peers and learn and reflect about the ways in which they and their peers deal with challenges related to learning English online. By creating a space for students to interact in this way, we hope that students feel supported and take steps to grow in their abilities to reflect and become autonomous learners.

References

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1987). The support of autonomy and the control of behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53(6), 1024–1037.

Ryan, R., & Brown, K, W. (2003). Why we don’t need self-esteem: On fundamental needs, contingent love and mindfulness. Psychological Inquiry, 14(1), 27–82.

Ryan, E. L., & Deci, R. M. (2017). Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development and wellness. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Yarwood, A., Rose-Wainstock, C., & Lees, M. (2019). Fostering English-use in a SALC through a discussion-based classroom intervention. Studies in Self-Access Learning Journal, 10(4), 256–378. https://sisaljournal.org/archives/dec19/yarwood_et_al/

Crystal is an American living in Germany with her family. Instagram: @crwainstockwrites crystalrosewainstock.com