The value placed on interaction in a course is second nature to anyone familiar with student development and pedagogical theory. The authors note that five of the seven principles identified by Chickering and Gamson relate to interaction in learning. (These include high levels of contact “between students and faculty, reciprocity and cooperation among students, prompt feedback, emphasis on time on task, and communication of high expectations.”)
To me, this captures a lot of what students tell me they dislike about discussion, group work, peer collaboration, and the like. A conscientious student tries to mimic expert performances (which, as we know, is tricky and can give rise to the illusion of understanding), but with lots of non-expert voices in her midst, how can she distinguish expert guidance from non-expert guidance that is likely to stymie learning? And as we noted in our discussions of Academically Adrift, studying alone seems more productive than study groups.
However, as time has passed, some research has begun to question the value of interaction, suggesting that there could be too much interaction required in a course. Summarizing 2007 findings by Arbaugh and Rau, the authors report, “learner-instructor interaction had the strongest correlation with perceived learning; learner-learner interaction actually had a negative correlation with delivery medium satisfaction. The more participants a learner had to pay attention to, the less satisfaction they had with the learning environment.”
It is possible, in other words, that requiring students to read and respond to posts and conversations from many different classmates may actually cause a good deal of frustration and dissatisfaction with the course experience.
In today's climate, we're encouraged to be 'student-centered,' which is often misinterpreted as a simple imperative not to lecture. But the important truth behind 'student-centeredness' is that we learn more when we discover via engagement than when we are told something passively. Student-student interaction, done well, fosters engagement and discovery.
But there's the rub: done well. As we've discussed here before, there is an art to leading discussion or organizing students for group work. What these studies about student-student interaction tell us is that a central element of these arts is how to integrate the student-student interaction, which is supposed to bring about engagement and discovery, with a role for the instructor as expert guide, so as to ensure that the student-student interaction generates something more than an echo chamber of misinformation and misunderstanding.
So how do we do that — what can we philosophy instructors do to create environments of guided discovery? How do you do it?