Case Study: Cedar Rapids Community School District

Professor Cyndy Woodhouse

ENGAGEMENT, CRITICAL THINKING, IMPROVING WRITING SKILLS

How a Language Arts High School teacher helped students in her district improve their face-to-face discussion skills with Packback.

Cyndy Woodhouse, Language Arts teacher at John F. Kennedy High School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa

INSTITUTION

Cedar Rapids Community School District

SUBJECT

Language Arts

SIZE

Small Average Class Size

Challenge: Discussion-Shy Students Across the District

Cyndy Woodhouse is a language arts teacher at John F. Kennedy High School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Despite teaching a wide array of learners, from freshmen to seniors, Woodhouse noticed a curious similarity among many of her students: the vast majority were reluctant to have face-to-face discussions about what they were learning. This was especially true if students disagreed with one another. 

Questions designed to spark conversation and get students thinking critically about the material were often met with simple and rote responses, or worse, no response at all. 

“Students are trained their whole careers to just simply answer a question,” Woodhouse says of her students’ reluctance to speak up. “They’re rarely encouraged to think about the premise of a question or why it’s even being asked.”

Woodhouse was, of course, not alone. Across the Cedar Rapids Community School District, teachers and administrators were grappling with the all-too-common challenge of sparking meaningful and engaging class discussion. As a district that was pursuing initiatives like voice and choice, student ownership of learning, and improved critical thinking, Cedar Rapids was in search of a strategy to advance those priorities through class discussion. 

“A lot of our work is about bridging the gap between digitally rich environments and good pedagogy — and discussion plays a key role in that work,” said Ryan Rydstrom, associate director of access and instructional design for the district. “If we can empower and engage the students, that in turn will increase their achievement.”

Encouraging students to go beyond just answering a question, to think about what it means and how it relates to their lives, is precisely the sort of engagement that promotes real learning. Student inquiry is vital to learning and development, helping students process — and form connections to — what is being taught. District leaders knew they needed a way to roll back years of learned behavior and get her students talking. They needed a tool that could help break her students out of their shells and get them involved in deep discussions with their peers. 

ENGAGEMENT

When Woodhouse’s student’s were showing disengagement, choosing a tool like Packback was a perfect way to encourage her tech-savvy, Generation Z’s to engage more in class discussions.

CRITICAL THINKING

Students found themselves thinking more critically about the class materials because they were able to discuss concepts with their classmates on Packback and face-to-face in class.

IMPROVING WRITING SKILLS

Woodhouse and other faculty within the district found that Packback’s digital teaching assistant helped students write clearly and engagingly, helping to communicate their concepts more in discussion.

Solution: Inquiry-based learning through Packback

Packback is an inquiry-driven online platform designed to help educators improve student motivation and critical thinking through discussion. It provides teachers with flexible and interactive tools for engaging, guiding, and praising their students. The platform serves as a digital teaching assistant, leveraging artificial intelligence to manage discussions, which leaves teachers with more time to actually engage with students. 

As the market leader for discussion and engagement in higher-education, Packback was already used by over 15,000 students at University of Iowa and Iowa State University. The Cedar Rapids Community School district saw an opportunity to partner with Packback to provide access to the platform to a handful of teachers who were interested in improving classroom discussions. Rydstrom, who oversaw the rollout of the tool, used a ‘faculty-driven opt-in’ approach that had demonstrated success for Packback in the higher education context, giving teachers themselves the autonomy to choose whether they wanted to try out the platform in their own classrooms.

Woodhouse was, of course, eager to try out the tool. 

She soon established “Packback Fridays.” Every week, students are asked to respond to a relevant prompt posted by Woodhouse to the platform, as well as react to a response provided by one of their peers. On some Fridays, students are directed to post questions of their own, as well as justify and explain why they chose to pose that question. 

All the while, artificial intelligence is analyzing student responses and instantly providing constructive and substantive feedback, encouraging open-ended questions, offering advice about clarity and grammar, and reminding students to cite sources to strengthen their arguments. This type of real-time feedback would normally be impossible for one teacher to provide to dozens of students in a timely fashion. 

“It encourages students to learn conversational skills they wouldn’t otherwise be learning in the classroom,” Woodhouse says. 

Results: Thinking Differently 

Woodhouse noticed a near-immediate improvement in how her students engage with the material and with one another. As tech-savvy members of Generation Z, they immediately took to this digital, AI-informed approach to classroom discussion. The quality of those discussions has only continued to rise in the intervening months, growing more substantive and thoughtful. “Packback prompts my students to think differently,” Woodhouse says. 

58.2

Cumulative average of curiosity score

33%

Percent of posts that include a source

100

Average number of words per post

Rydstrom says teachers across the district are seeing similar results. The district has had little trouble implementing the platform, he says, or convincing teachers to try it in their classrooms. Through positive word-of-mouth alone, the number of educators using the tool has quickly grown from the five original early adopters to about 20 elementary, middle, and high school teachers. Rydstrom says Packback allows teachers from all content areas to help students not only engage more with classroom material but become better writers — and given that Cedar Rapids is the test site for Packback in high schools, he and the district community have also advised the company in its approach to better support the unique needs of high school teachers.

“From words being written to the level of student curiosity, we continue to see engagement just rising,” Rydstrom says. And the data support his experience: throughout the pilot phase, students’ “curiosity scores” (a proprietary measure that quantifies student engagement in discussion) have continued to increase, and the need for teacher moderation has steadily declined as discussion quality continues to improve.

Being able to write clearly and engagingly is a critical skill for students to learn, but it is unrealistic to expect an expert chemistry teacher to also be an expert writing instructor. With Packback, educators can focus on encouraging students to think deeply about important lessons and concepts while the digital teaching assistant provides the writing support. This has proven to be an important accessibility tool, as well, providing clarity to responses posted by students who might typically struggle to communicate in writing.

As for Woodhouse, Packback has finally provided a solution to the communication challenge she has long hoped to help her students overcome. 

“We really enjoy our Packback Fridays,” she says. “Students get to have these class discussions that I think are super critical to their learning, and they get to do so in this cyberspace forum they’ve come to know and love as the tech generation. I’m so excited to see how my students continue to develop both their conversation skills and their academic knowledge.”


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