encouraging student participation
Preparing one of the plenary sessions for the recent Teaching Professor Conference provided me the opportunity to do some more work on questions, which if you’re a regular reader of this blog you will recognize as an ongoing interest of mine for more than a year now. In fact, the post on May 28, 2014 is a reprint of an article I wrote for the March 2013 issue of The Teaching Professor newsletter. It represents some of my early thinking on the topic, including ways of emphasizing questions in our teaching and modeling good question types for our students. The ability to ask good questions is often an underrated and underdeveloped skill, yet questions can play such a significant role in learning when used properly.
At one time or another, most of us have been disappointed by the caliber of the questions students ask in class, online, or in the office. Many of them are such mundane questions: “Will material from the book be on the exam?” “How long should the paper be?” “Can we use Google to find references?” “Would you repeat what you just said? I didn’t get it all down in my notes.” Rarely do they ask thoughtful questions that probe the content and stir the interest of the teacher and other students.
Issue 1: The classroom discussion is going pretty well. Students are offering some good comments and more than one hand is in the air. Then a student makes a really excellent observation that opens up a whole avenue of relevant possibilities. You follow-up by calling on a student whose hand has been in the air for some time. Her comment is fine, but it’s totally unrelated to the previous comment. How do you get students to respond to each other’s comments? How do you get student comments to build on a key topic so that it becomes more like a real discussion?
As a college student, I was rarely the first to raise my hand or respond to a question posed during class. I was shy by nature and always felt like I had little to offer. There were times, however, that I would interject simply to break the long silence after the instructor asked a question. In those cases, the silence was either too uncomfortable to bear or I figured that my response would be no worse than anyone else’s. There was also the threat of a pop quiz or some other academic challenge looming for the unresponsive class, which included students who obviously either did not know the content or had not read the assignment. I believe this is an experience all college students have faced at one time or another.
Many instructors will argue that student participation in class is important. But what’s the difference between participation and engagement? What does good participation or engagement look like? How can you recognize it? And how can you tell if a student is not engaged?
Introversion is not a learning disability, but many students who have trouble speaking in front of large groups or thinking on their feet can find themselves at a disadvantage in the contemporary college classroom, which puts a premium on active learning and class participation.
Clear expectations, structure, and instructor intervention can go a long way toward getting students highly engaged and highly interactive in online discussions.
A recent classroom observation reminded me that student participation can be encouraged and supported by attention to small but important presentational details. In this article I have highlighted these details in the form of questions, and I hope that you’ll use them to reflect on the behaviors you’re using when seeking, listening, and responding to student contributions.
“What did you think about the reading?” can serve as an acceptable discussion prompt if your class is reading a novel, but a question like that doesn’t generate much response when the assigned chapter is in an engineering mechanics book or a principles of accounting text. For those who teach “technical content” — and by that I mean material with “right” answers and preferred ways of doing things, like problems with specific solutions or checklists of procedures — it can be doubly difficult to get students talking.
I am unabashedly proud of my pedagogical article resource file. I’ve been collecting good articles on teaching and learning since the early ’80s. I use the file almost every day, and in the process of looking for a particular article, I regularly stumble onto others whose contents I remember when I see them but have otherwise forgotten.