Throughout all levels of academic writing, students are challenged to create strong theses. Where do these theses come from? How do you learn to generate a thesis? What makes a better thesis, or one that will lead to a fruitful discussion or analysis, as opposed to one which leads to a dead-end? In Jeff Gans’ The Big Novel English elective, students use online discussion threads within the Schoology LMS as a way to brainstorm and refine their theses, with visible feedback from both Gans and their peers. By posting their “first drafts” of an idea, students are able to peer-review and see each others’ thinking as well as gain valuable feedback on their own.
Using the Shared Discussion feature, students in both periods of The Big Novel can write in one shared discussion amongst all students. As their first major analytical paper approaches, Gans asked them to write about ideas for an analysis paper on Moby Dick. Some of the ideas are very raw at the beginning, and students acknowledge that these rough concepts need refining. “I’m […] responding to each idea with ways they can take their own inchoate concepts and turn them into actionable papers.” In addition to Gans’ feedback, other students reply with their own suggestions or ideas–each student is responsible for contributing their own paper topic and replying to one other students’ ideas. The resulting threads show multiple perspectives on one student’s ideas, an exchange of discussion between class periods which normally don’t have the chance to dialog, offers to collaborate on research and textual evidence, and support and encouragement for promising or enticing theses as they emerge.
The visible nature of a discussion thread invites peer feedback, but Gans also feels that it strengthens his feedback as well: “I like the idea of posting everything online so that a) the kids remember my guidance beyond the initial conversation, and b) each student can learn from my comments to every other student and perhaps apply that thinking to their own paper.” Through this public forum for the discussion of ideas, as well as a record for students to examine as they write their paper, Gans’ students now have a tool to help them sharpen their thinking and writing as they tackle the big ideas of the Big Novel.