Using Academic Discussion to Encourage Reading

Dr. Bryan McCarthy teaches introduction and upper-level philosophy courses to non-majors at the University of Pittsburgh-Greensburg. He challenges his students to move beyond  memorizing theories and philosophers and to engage with readings and discussions that challenge the way they think. “Philosophy is definitely a different kind of thinking,” explains Dr. McCarthy. “What we specifically talk about is almost not important. It’s mostly just giving them an opportunity to think in a new way for the first time on their own, and topics and the philosophers that we talk about are all in service to that.”

Opening the Book to Prepare for Class

In order to get students thinking in a new way, they must come prepared to class by completing reading assignments. “In philosophy, there’s always going to be reading to do. There have been times where I say, ‘How many people read this?’ and two people out of 30 might have raised their hand,” explains Dr. McCarthy. “With philosophy, a lot of the times, [students] just go, ‘you know what, I know I am not going to understand this so what’s the point?’ and they just close the book. [Then you’re] basically just teaching a room full of people and the words out of your mouth was the first time they even thought of the ideas.”  

Using Academic Discussion to Encourage Reading

Dr. McCarthy wanted to find a tool that would encourage students to read before class but didn’t feel like busy work. With that in mind, Dr. McCarthy decided to implement Packback, an AI-powered discussion board. “I have gotten comments from students that they would like to be rewarded for the work that they do outside of the class,” says Dr. McCarthy. “Online quizzes and homework, they’re stressful and they feel like busy work. Packback seemed like it might be a natural feeling where it didn’t seem like busy work, but it gave them a lot of points for just reading.”

Each week, Dr. McCarthy requires his students to read a philosophical text, post one question related to the text and respond to a peer’s question on Packback. “I went with one and one [response] because I really wanted them to spend time on their initial post,” says Dr. McCarthy. “Part of the point of philosophy is to struggle with those hard texts by yourself. There’s something that it does to your brain when you force yourself to do that. The point of Packback is to get them to read before I explain it to them and that seems to be working. I think they need that initial confrontation with the reading in order to really appreciate what’s happening in the classroom.”

An Improvement in Reading and Discussion

“Packback, I feel, encourages them better than online quizzes, better than little homework assignments or better than just calling on them in class,” says Dr. McCarthy. “A lot of them come in already understanding some of the basics and you start to fill in the gaps. That’s an easier project to engage in then totally introducing them to new ideas for the very first time and then trying to get them to understand them.”
But getting students to read wasn’t the only positive impact Dr. McCarthy saw in his class. “The discussion is [also] definitely better this term,” says Dr. McCarthy. “I would say I have more hands go up per class than probably ever before. I’ve changed a lot of things, but I also think that Packback is part of it. When I’ve solicited feedback about Packback from the students, a number of them have said, ‘I like it because it actually encourages me to read and makes sure I actually understand what I am reading.’ I am sure there are things that I could improve to make that an even better result, [but] it’s working, at least in a large measure for what I’m trying to get them to do, which is just to read.”