Over time, schools have begun to gravitate towards a collection of seven specific elements when it comes to tackling problem-based learning for academic discourse within the classroom.

First defined by Sammamish High School, these seven factors combine to form a cohesive depiction of learning as a whole. One of the seven significant focuses is on academic discourse.

Academic discourse, also known as the concept of how students communicate discoveries and establish that connection with their overall learning, is a valuable factor to consider in teaching. Communication is vital for any student to succeed, and academic discourse places emphasis on proper communication to enable progress in classwork and projects.

First, what is academic discourse?

Encompassing the concept of dialogue, from the language utilized by students to the facilitation of communication in the classroom, good academic discourse is an essential skill for students. Encouraging higher levels of communication, in anything from whole class discussions to peer-to-peer communication, can help students to improve their problem-based learning.

Characteristics of academic discourse

Discourse can include anything from listening to debating, presentations to meta-cognition, and even writing to critiquing. Teaching your students to communicate and interact with the use of academic vocabulary is at the heart of academic discourse. Asking the right questions is one of the ideal places to start.

For the majority of students, the concept of academic discourse is not one that comes naturally. Instead, it must be modeled by educators, and both taught and recognized by students and teachers. Strategic instruction is vital to provide students with insight into what academic discourse is, as well as what it feels and looks like. Integrating this skill building can enrich classroom communication, and encourage deeper retention and learning.

So, how can academic discourse be integrated into learning and the classroom?

This process provides insight into how this skill can be defined and implemented in a math classroom setting:
  • The expectation is set that students should present problems, and then explain how they reached an answer.
  • The importance of proper vocabulary and word practice is stated, ensuring students have a distinction between different terms – such as an equation and an expression.
  • The use of writing within the math classroom is increased, with teachers requiring students to write not only their answer, but the process of reaching that answer. This enables them to process material and apply relevant vocabulary.

Complex problem solving

With a problem-based curriculum of learning, students are introduced to increasingly more complex problems to solve. This method of education encourages more active communication between students in ways that individual tasks or homework does not. A classroom with great academic discourse is a more meaningful one, beyond simply absorbing the subject matter you are given.

An example unit could be ‘how would a store maximize the profit they make’, with students working in groups to solve the question based on study and problem solving as a unit. In this case, students could utilize their data to create a quadratic equation to determine profit based on their collaborative work. This kind of study should be completed alongside learning quadratics, to offer greater capacity for difficulty and higher levels of problem solving.

In a study such as this, students must process all of the following to succeed, ensuring that they make use of academic discourse throughout to proceed and complete their assignment:
  • Processing what each axis means or represents
  • Establishing the relevance of profit, cost and income in this specific context
  • Identifying and connecting the need for break-even points plus the vertex

With this kind of complex problem solving, academic discourse can soon become second nature, allowing students to develop further understanding of both their subject matter and the benefits of working with better communication. In the case of the above PBL task, students require the support of one another to establish a robust thought process, making academic discourse a natural conclusion. The key isn’t in always getting a right answer, it’s in using the thought process correctly to reach a more informed conclusion.

Academic discourse community

As such, tasks that require collaborative problem solving offer ample ways to assess and test a student’s use of interactivity and vocabulary. This problem solving also offers students a way to self-assess their development and understanding of a task or subject. Starting with vocabulary games or even having students re-evaluate previously written text can be excellent ways to help students process these new skills and techniques.

Once a unit is completed in the classroom that requires group communication, academic discourse becomes that much easier. Soon, students will move from being insular in their learning to establishing better peer communication, a must for active learning. With practice and consistency, students can deepen their learning and understanding thanks to these essential skills.

Academic language discourse

Academic discourse is more than just a tool for the education system, it’s also a method of problem solving that can be carried beyond the walls of a classroom.

Some of the long-term benefits of employing these techniques include:
  • Increased communication between students, allowing for better learning experiences
  • Improved problem-solving skills both in large groups and smaller projects
  • Better communication skills as a whole, with both peers and educators
  • Deeper understanding of the subject matter, and the relevance it carries when solving problems
  • Enhanced vocabulary both in communication and in writing conclusions and analysis