Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Discussion-Based Approaches to Developing Understanding: Classroom Instruction and Student Performance in Middle and High School English


Applebee, Langer, Nystrand, and Gamoran came together to study the relationship and effects of using discussion based strategies in 64 middle and high school English classes. Basing their study in the scociocognitive view of language and literacy learning, and the foundation that many previous studies have found that high-quality discussions can greatly impact the understanding of students as readers and writers, Applebee, et al, “sought to provide evidence that an emphasis on discussion-based approaches, coupled with high academic demand, is positively related to literacy performance across a diverse set of classrooms at the middle and high school levels. (719)

Although they did not look to focus on any one specific discussion strategy, they did focus on the presence and extent of discussion activities in the classrooms. They found that the use of “authentic questions” used to explore ideas rather than test what students knew, time for open discussion between the whole class or between at least 3 participants, and building upon student’s previous comments to create continuity in the discussion all had positive effects on performance over the year (690).

Applebee, et al looked for evidence of “dialogical instruction” in terms of open discussion, authentic teacher questions, and questions with uptake. They define open discussion as a “free exchange of information among students and/or between at least 3 participants that lasts longer than 30 seconds.” They noted that the teacher may be one of the 3 participants, but that the teacher usually either stays silent or serves mainly to “keep the ball rolling.” They also note that “discussion tends to be marked by the absence of questions, from both the teacher and students, except for purposes of clarification. (700).

They looked for evidence of classrooms that supported “the development of students’ evolving envisionments” in the following activities:

1. Students were allowed room to develop their own understandings in reading and writing activities;
2. Students spent class time in purposeful conversation with peers and teachers;
3. Students were encouraged verbally or through modeling to take a position, express opinions, or explore personal reactions;
4. Students asked questions that showed comprehension;
5. Students asked questions that showed evaluation or analysis;
6. Students were allowed to shift discussions in a new direction;
7. The teacher encouraged students to use others' questions and comments to build discussion;
8. Students actually did so;
9. Students responded to other students or to the teacher with challenges, comments, opinions;
10. Students challenged the text (e.g., by bringing in alternative points of view); and
11. The teachers' questions required analysis (701).

They also looked for evidence of high academic demands by reporting on the overall amount of work expected from the students, the level of emphasis on revisions to their writing- both in content and mechanics, the hours of English homework per week, and the amount of reading and writing assignments required (703).

The overall results of this study found that:
a. “High academic demands and discussion-based approaches were significantly related to spring performance.”
b. “These approaches were effective across a range of situations.” (middle/high school, urban/suburban, academic ability, race/ethnicity)
c. “The impact of high academic demands, in particular, was greatly reduced when track level was included in the models. … lower-track students have less engagement in all aspects of effective English instruction: dialogical instruction, envisionment-building activities, extended curricular conversations, and high academic demands. … The observed maximum for average minutes of open discussion per hour in low track classes was 3.7, as opposed to 14.5 minutes in high-track classes. In these circumstances, it becomes much harder to determine how well discussion-based approaches work for lower-track students; to some extent, they have not been tried” (719).
d. “The approaches that contributed most to student performance … were those that used discussion to develop comprehensive understanding, encouraging exploration and multiple perspectives rather than focusing on correct interpretations and predetermined conclusions.”
e. “High academic demands and discussion-based approaches were significantly related to literacy performance” (722).
f. “…when students’ classroom experiences emphasize high academic demands and discussion-based approaches to the development of understanding, students internalize the knowledge and skills necessary to engage in challenging literacy tasks on their own” (723).

Applebee, et al’s study serves as a prime example of research that has already been conducted that supports my thinking in the benefits of discussion-based teaching strategies. Their subjects ranged from middle to high school, urban to suburban, high to low level learners, which confirms my own beliefs that best practices can and will benefit all students. They draw upon their own previous research, as well as many other researchers, to support the basis for their study, and their findings complement the findings in these other studies as well. There is a wide body of research that supports the need for more professional development in the area of discussion-based approaches to learning. This study encourages me as I continue with my own action research in this very area.

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