When I speak with other professors who work extensively in the classroom, we often find that we share many of the same challenges. Students’ lack of classroom participation in discussion and test anxiety are two of the most common. Many professors try to mitigate these issues through two time-honored pedagogical tactics: a participation grade and extra credit questions on tests. While both tactics can be effective, by applying concepts from gamification research I found a way to both enhance classroom participation and reduce test anxiety with one simple technique.
The joy of discussion as a class activity is starting it up and seeing where it goes. Although some of the same themes come up in every discussion, how they emerge and the connections they raise vary as much as the individual students do. On a great discussion day, the talk flows freely in interesting and unexpected directions, much like jazz.
The evidence that students benefit when they talk about course content keeps mounting. In the study highlighted below, students in two sections of an introductory zoology course were learning about the physiological mechanisms of RU-486 and about emergency contraception medication. They learned about the topic in three 50-minute lecture periods. Students in both sections were given supplementary reading that reinforced the content, and they were encouraged to ask questions and discuss the content during lab. In addition, students in the experimental bioethics section read and discussed essays that addressed the social, ethical, and legal issues associated with use of emergency contraception. Students in the experimental section then discussed these readings. They managed the discussion, asking questions and raising the issues they wanted to talk about. The instructor intervened only when there was confusion about the content or when prompting and follow-up were needed to advance the discussion.
As 2013 draws to a close, the editorial team at Faculty Focus looks back on some of the most popular articles of the past year. During the course of the year, we published more than 250 articles on a full range of topics of interest to today’s college educators.
“Get students talking about their experiences!” I heard this recommendation in a couple of sessions at the recent Teaching Professor Technology Conference, and the admonition does rest on sound premises. Students learn new material by connecting it to what they already know. If a teacher gets a sense of that knowledge base (which often grows out of and rests on experience) it’s a lot easier to make good connections between what students know and what they need to learn.
Is there a way to motivate and improve student participation without grading it? I raise the question because I think grading contributions gets students talking for points, not talking to make points. Verbal students make sure they say something, but often without listening to or connecting with the comments of others.
A sociology professor in an undergraduate introductory social problems course used a blog to “enhance student participation, engagement and skill building.” (p. 207) In the article referenced below, this professor shares her experiences of using this assignment with 263 students across four semesters.
Grading participation presents a number of challenges. If instructors rely on their sense of who participated, how often, and in what ways, that can be a pretty subjective measure. After all, besides noting who’s contributing, the instructor needs to listen to what the student is saying, and frame a response while keeping the larger discussion context in mind. Is the discussion staying on track? Are there points that have yet to be made? If instructors opt for a more objective system, they face the cumbersome task of comment counting during the actual discussion. While listening to the student, the instructor must find the student’s name and record the comment. It requires a challenging set of multitasking skills.
In the typical college classroom a small handful of students make the vast majority of comments. As a teacher you want to create a classroom environment that helps students of various learning styles and personalities to feel comfortable enough to contribute as well as understand the importance of class preparation and active participation. To reach this goal requires a constant balancing act of encouraging quiet, reflective students to speak up and, occasionally, asking the most active contributors to hold back from commenting in order to give others a chance.
I’ve been doing some presentations on classroom interaction and thinking yet again about how we could do better with our questions — the ones we ask in class or online. Good questions make students think, they encourage participation and I think they improve the caliber of the answers students give and the questions they ask. To achieve those worthwhile outcomes more regularly, I’d like to recommend three actions that have the potential to improve our questioning.