Show, Don’t Tell

Updated: May 26

When instructors set up their first Yellowdig Community, they often ask: “What should I tell my students to do?” This question is motivated by legitimate concerns about one’s responsibilities as an instructor and one’s role as a discussion facilitator. But it belies two unspoken assumptions. The first is that, in a discussion between peers, students need to be told exactly what to do. The second is that telling students exactly what to do will yield the educational outcomes you want. While these premises are facially plausible, I don’t think they hold up under scrutiny. Indeed, if these premises were true, then LMS discussion boards — which leverage highly prescriptive approaches to discussions — would be all we’d need to achieve great educational outcomes in online discussions. And if we thought LMS discussion boards were sufficient, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation.

What’s the alternative to telling your students what to do? Show them what you're looking for in your online learning community.

"Show, Don’t Tell” is an old adage. You might catch a high school director citing it to a teenager mugging his way through the role of Romeo. In the context of theatre, the adage means, roughly, “Don’t indicate what you’re thinking and feeling. Exemplify what you’re thinking and feeling.” The difference is subtle but crucial. To indicate is to telegraph your character’s thoughts and feelings to the audience. To exemplify is to reveal what you (as your character) are thinking and feeling — to embody your character and leave it to the audience to discern your thoughts and feelings.