Thoughts on “commenting first”

In a recent upgrade, the “comment first” feature was added to the online discussion forums in my institution’s course management system (CMS).  When the option is selected, the “comment first” feature requires students to submit a reply to a discussion prompt before they’re able to see the comments from their peers.  When the feature was announced last summer at a CMS users conference, the attendees went wild with excitement.  According to the CMS developers, no single feature had been more requested than the ability to require students to “comment first.”  With all of the anticipation and excitement over this simple feature, I figured I needed to try it out in an online course.

From an assessment standpoint, I understand the desire to require students to comment before being able to read the submissions of classmates.  As instructors, we assign course materials (videos, readings, etc.) and we want to assess whether students have read and understood the content.  We also want students to take a position and critically analyze the content.  By having students “comment first,” we have the ability to assess whether the students have interacted with and analyzed the course materials.  Without the “comment first” feature, some complacent students may try to avoid interacting with course materials completely and simply use the comments from their peers to craft their own.

When I tried out the “comment first” feature with a recent online class, my students hated it.  Many expressed anger at not being able to see their classmates’ comments and argued that seeing how other people interpreted course material helped them better understand the content themselves.  While I am a strong advocate for leveraging the social nature of learning in my classes, I explained that I wasn’t necessarily grading their first comment but I wanted to see the progression and evolution that resulted from interacting with classmates and with me in the discussion forum.  I want to see real debates and discussions in my online classes and feel that open discussions can often have a normalizing factor.  In an open discussion without the “comment first” feature, the first couple posts set the tone for the rest of the discussion.  By building a commenting first aspect into the discussion, I was able to see what my students initially thought before they interacted with their classmates.  This could potentially decrease the normalizing effect and help the students think for themselves, at least initially.

This weekend, I read an article in the New York Times which echoed this stance on “commenting first.”  Researchers at the University of Wisconsin, Madison examined comments left on a fictional news article and studied how the comments shaped readers’ interpretation of the news.  Groups of participants read a news article on the potential benefits and risks of a new nanotechnology product.   When presented with comments that were critical of the benefits of the nanotechnology and uncivil in nature, participants interpreted the news more negatively.  The “comments not only polarized the readers,” the researchers write “but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself.”  While the research only examined the civility of comments and the reactions of participants to these comments, the end result was clear.  Comments impact how the readers analyzed the news.  The same effect could occur in our classes with open discussions.  The “comment first” feature could diminish this effect by forcing students to draw their own conclusions and interpretations before interacting with the comments from their peers.    At the very least, the “comment first” feature deserves more examination pedagogically.

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