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Tech Tools Help One Professor Supercharge Classroom Debates

Students prepare for class thoroughly now that they have to answer tough questions ahead of time.

The traditional university lecture is getting a makeover: As professors try to make face-to-face time with students more valuable, they often struggle to spark interesting conversations — so they're stoking the fire in their classrooms with tech tools that help students prepare for a lively discussion. 

In a typical class, professors know their curriculum and subject area well, but aren't aware of what preparations students did before coming to class or what they understand. They blindly ask specific students open-ended questions about what they read, often calling on ones who weren't prepared and missing students who have something valuable to contribute. 

This problem hurts professors who primarily teach using the Socratic method, which involves asking students questions instead of feeding them information.

"The pedagogy of the Socratic method depends crucially on students being well prepared," said Jeffrey Lehman, vice chancellor of NYU Shanghai. "They have to have read carefully if they're going to be able to engage in Socratic dialogue about the text that we read." 

This hit-or-miss approach doesn't make the best use of students' time, and it doesn't lead to as valuable of a discussion. That's why professors have been experimenting with different ways to make sure students come to class prepared and ready to engage in debate.

Professor Gad Allon developed a software tool called ForClass, which he uses in his classes at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. This cloud-based platform allows professors to post case studies, readings and questions for students to answer before class. But the professor is the only one who can see all the answers as a group or individually.

He also asks students to share ideas and write about what they're learning on discussion platform Yellowdig, which allows students to crowdsource ideas and build on what they understand before class. He looks at what they're writing to get a good idea of where they are in their understanding.

In class, he brings up at least one example that someone posted on Yellowdig. With plenty of competition on their time, Allon wants to give students a compelling reason to stay engaged in the course, and the Facebook-like tool helps facilitate that. 

"My goal is to make sure that they continue to think about my course every free second they have," Allon said.

In Lehman's class of 300 students, his approach includes a little old school with a little new school. He gives students reading assignments on paper, makes students turn off their laptops and phones, and requires them to answer questions in ForClass. He also throws in clickers for a change of pace, giving students a question to answer with their clickers and calling on people who answered in a certain way to defend their view.

Ahead of class, students read classic texts on paper in their course pack. Then they log onto ForClass and read the digital version of these texts, which Lehman sprinkles with provocative questions every few pages. Whenever they see a question, students have to stop and answer it, which often means rereading parts of what they just read.

Twenty-four hours before class starts, they submit their answers to Lehman so he can review them. This prep time allows him to set up a debate by calling on students with different views and preparing follow-up questions ahead of time. With no technology distractions in the classroom, students can focus on defending their views and seeing concepts from a different angle. 

And this approach, Lehman says, is making a big difference in the quality of student preparation and interaction.