February 13th, 2013

Student Comments: Moving from Participation to Contribution

By:

student engagement

A colleague and I have been revisiting a wide range of issues associated with classroom interaction. I am finding new articles, confronting aspects of interaction that I still don’t understand very well, having my thinking on other topics challenged, and learning once more how invaluable and personally satisfying a pedagogical exchange with a colleague can be. My colleague recommended an article I had forgotten. The article is old but the point it makes is just as relevant today, if not more, than when it was made in 1987.

“The notion of participation is so well entrenched in the collective mind of the teaching profession that I wonder if we have not consciously stopped considering what we are after when we work with a class.” (p. 15) Dennis Gioia thinks that most of us are after lots of different students answering and asking questions. “It really feels good to see a substantial portion of the class joining in. Indeed, success at achieving class participation is a seductive sort of accomplishment—so seductive that it often leads to a de facto presumption that the class is successful simply because so many people are more actively involved in it.” (p. 15) He’s got a point. Sometimes it’s so difficult to get anyone to participate, that on those days when there’s a good amount of discussion, we can’t help but feel the class is going well. But if our concern stops with the number of students who speak, we may be valuing quantity over quality.

Gioia makes an interesting distinction between participation and contribution. “Participation connotes involvement, sharing and simply taking part. . .” Contribution, on the other hand, implies much more, including “. . .intellectual involvement and sharing of knowledge and knowledge construction.” (p. 16) “Concentrating on contribution causes people to think about what they are going to say, instead of simply blurting out ill-considered opinions, superficial observation, and irrelevant personal examples.” (p. 16) And haven’t we all heard some of those types of comments in our classes?

So how do we encourage students to go beyond participation and make contributions to class discussions? Gioia starts us off with a list that describes what students do when they make a contribution:

  1. provide recapitulations and summaries;
  2. make observations that integrate concepts and discussions;
  3. cite relevant personal examples;
  4. ask key questions that lead to revealing discussions;
  5. engage in devil’s advocacy; and
  6. disagree with the instructor in ways that promote further exploration of the issue. (p. 17)

His best suggestion is a bit more challenging to implement. He recommends that the instructor’s “agenda” for the day shouldn’t take up more than 50 percent of the period. Students are responsible for generating and sustaining the rest of the class discussion and no, they don’t get out early if they fail to do so.

Gioia encourages contributions with “think breaks.” These are short periods of silence during which students “think through a comment just made to see if it makes sense or constitutes a worthwhile observation.” (p. 18) He also hands out awards: the Reader’s Digest Award when a contribution ably sums up or succinctly positions a point, and the Monopoly Award if an answer is rambling, disjointed and difficult to follow. He doesn’t hand out the latter often. It functions more as an incentive to encourage thinking before speaking. I wonder if it might also discourage over participation. Maybe it’s something that could be “awarded” privately.

Encouraging contributions is harder than getting students to talk. It requires that teachers move among a constellation of roles: facilitator, coach, cheerleader, iconoclast, questioner, integrator, supporter, referee, Socratic muser, occasional anarchist, and feigned dunce, according to Gioia (p. 19) That’s quite a list, but then good discussion requires sophisticated leadership.

I do think that many of us (especially readers of a blog like this) have a good repertoire of strategies that encourage participation: persistent patience, wait time, the three-hand rule (don’t call on anyone until there are at least three hands up), think-pair-share before participating, and giving time to jot notes on a possible answer, for example. If we are getting good participation, it’s time to start working on raising the caliber of what students say, so that in addition to participation we are hearing contributions that promote understanding, develop knowledge, and result in discussions where student voices dominate.

Reference: Gioia, D. A. (1987). Contribution! Not participation in the OB classroom. Journal of Management Education, 11, 15-19.