class lecture May 1

Creating a Respectful Community: Lessons from the Middle East

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My family and I have had the privilege of living in the Middle East for nearly three decades. In addition to the extraordinary Arab hospitality we have enjoyed, it also has been a time of learning. Many of my parochial assumptions have been challenged, not the least being my understandings about teaching and learning.

A notable feature of education in the region (as in much of the world) is an emphasis on rote learning. I received the bulk of my formal education in Australia and United States—countries where there is a strong focus on the development of autonomy through critical thinking. With some ethnocentric arrogance, I initially viewed the local education systems here in the Middle East as backward and destructive. These systems resulted from and contributed to the sort of authoritarian dictatorships that prevail in many parts of the world.

Over time, however, I have gained a more nuanced appreciation of local learning approaches and I believe there are elements that Western educators may do well to consider or reconsider.

In his seminal work on intercultural rhetoric, Robert Kaplan offers a set of foundational questions: (1) What may be discussed? (2) Who has the authority to speak/write? (3) What form(s) may the writing take? (4) What is evidence? (5) What arrangement of evidence is likely to appeal (be convincing) to readers?

The answers to these questions are profoundly shaped by culture. In particular, I am struck by the fundamentally different understandings of the first two questions in collectivist and individualistic societies. In individualistic societies, such as Australia and United States, the normative assumption is that it is right and healthy to promote the development of a strong autonomous voice in students. We encourage students to speak with confidence, question assumptions, and challenge those in authority.

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student participation April 5

Question of the Day Promotes Class Participation

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Most of us have experienced the dreaded quiet class. Typically, it’s the class where only a few students speak and it’s always the same three or four. Everyone else sits passively and waits out the clock. For those classes and others, I’ve found a question of the day an effective method of promoting participation.

It’s an approach that gets students thinking and speaking on a course-related topic. The expectations are that everyone speaks and all answers are accepted and welcome. Sometimes the question of the day assesses student’s prior knowledge of the topic; sometimes it asks for an opinion, and sometimes it asks for an application of a course concept. Typically, the class session starts with the question of the day. I use it to set the day’s learning purpose. Each student provides a brief response, typically taking no more than 20 seconds.

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How to include introverted students in class discussions. January 9

How to Include Introverts in Class Discussion

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Would you prefer to go to a party with 50 exciting, brand-new people that you’ve never met before, or would you prefer to have dinner with an old, dear friend? You’ve probably guessed already that extroverts would prefer the party and introverts would prefer dinner with a friend. But what does this have to do, in particular, with learning and students in our classroom discussions? Temperament influences our preferences for learning, and introverts have particular preferences about how they would choose to learn.

Not only is it a matter of preference, but it’s also a matter of where introverts produce their best work and the conditions under which they are best suited for learning. Introverted students tend to be very comfortable with solitary learning. They’re comfortable doing their learning through reading, research, writing, and sitting in a large lecture hall listening to someone.

Introverts are usually quite happy being alone, so the kinds of learning that lets them participate on their own are within their comfort zone. It’s also typical of introverts to prefer to have some time to think before they speak. And in that thinking, they have an opportunity to sort out their thoughts, clarify their own thinking, and come to some creative kinds of thinking and some deep reflections.

Many introverts are comfortable using written formats to clarify their thinking. They like to write things down before they’re asked to share them, and those writing opportunities allow them to think through the subject before speaking. Knowing these preferences and understanding the kinds of learning strategies that bring about the best results for introverts is important to us as faculty members.

To sum up introversion, it’s really a matter of difference. A good analogy might be to think about the difference between left-handed people and right-handed people. One is not better than the other. One is not right, and the other is not wrong. They’re simply differences, but they’re differences that have implications. And as left-handed folks have had to try to learn how to live in a world that might be designed for right-handed people, so too do introverts in our classrooms sometimes struggle to feel like they should be more extroverted.

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class participation July 13, 2017

Class Participation: What Behaviors Count?

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What counts for participation isn’t always addressed when we talk with students about the importance of participation. It’s easy to assume that everybody knows what’s involved—but is that a safe assumption?

When considering what qualifies as participation, some behaviors come to mind quickly—asking questions, answering questions, and making comments. But are those the only options? Maybe interaction in our courses would improve if we broadened the definition and considered some alternatives.

The behaviors that most often count as participation relate to verbal communication—what students say. And we all know that some students, close to 50% according to most studies, are very reluctant to say anything. With broader, more inclusive definitions, we might make it easier for shy, fearful, and reticent students to learn how to answer confidently when they are called on and how to speak up in a discussion when they have something of value to contribute.

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pile of question marks May 9, 2017

Questions to Ask When Students Won’t Participate

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Participation continues to be one of the most common methods faculty use to get students involved in their learning. It’s a go-to strategy for many, but various studies have shown that it’s not always used in ways that realize its full potential. We go to the well so often, we fall into patterns and do not observe or analyze what we are doing and why.

Meanwhile, getting students to talk in class, much less provide meaningful contributions, is like pulling teeth. Whether they’re shy, unprepared, or simply reluctant to share their ideas, getting students to talk in class is a constant struggle.

The point here is not to find out who’s to blame for the lack of discussion, but rather to encourage teachers to take inventory of what’s occurring in the classroom. Is there something else that might be done to encourage students to get involved?


Ideas and Strategies to Encourage Participation 


Have you given students something to talk about? Something to read? Questions to consider as they read? A reaction paper that captures their thoughts and gives them something concrete to contribute?

Discussion Prompt: “When you do the reading, I’d like you to note a passage that you disagree with. We’ll use those passages to start our discussion of the reading.” Alternatively, the selected passage might be something that relates to a personal experience or something we’ve talked about in class, or something you don’t understand, never thought about before, or would have a question about. This option works best when the prompt is singular and specific.


Have you talked about the role of participation in this course? Why do you want it? What it contributes to learning? How do you feel about wrong answers and mistakes?

Discussion Prompt: “I encourage participation in this course for five reasons: 1) it gives me feedback so that I know how you’re thinking about and understanding the content; 2) it gives you practice speaking like a biologist, political scientist, engineer, philosopher (whatever the field); 3) it gives your classmates the chance to learn from someone besides me; 4) it helps you develop an important communication skill; and 5) it gives us a chance to get to know each other. I don't expect you to perfect--you'll make mistakes and so will I. That's how we learn.”

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students in lecture hall April 6, 2017

Participation Policy Examples

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Here’s a collection of five different participation policies. I encourage you to use them to stimulate thinking and conversations about how a participation policy's content and tone can influence learning and classroom climate. Which policies work best—given the course, its content, the instructor, and the students? The objective is to use these examples to stimulate reflection on participation policies, in general, and on your policies, specifically.

At the end of the article is a set of questions to encourage reflection, discussion, and analysis. For example:

  • Which policy aligns most closely with your thinking about participation?
  • Which policy would you not use? Why?
  • Do these policies reveal something about the teacher? If so, what?

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student raising hand in class March 27, 2017

How Do Students Learn from Participation in Class Discussion?

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Despite numerous arguments favoring active learning, especially class discussion, instructors sometimes worry that discussion is an inefficient or ineffective way for students to learn. What happens when students make non-value added, irrelevant, or inaccurate contributions? What about comments from non-experts that may obfuscate rather than clarify understanding? What about students who speak only to earn participation credit rather than contribute substantively to the discussion?


student participating in class January 10, 2017

Learning More about Student Participation

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A lot of good research has been done on participation in college classrooms. Here are some key findings and references that provide excellent background and reasons why working to get more students participating is so important.

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smiling students in large classroom January 10, 2017

Classroom Participation Strengths Inventory

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Understanding temperament is very helpful in understanding the learning styles and approaches. So extroverts tend to prefer very high levels of external stimulation, tend to be energized by social activity, may avoid solitude, and are oriented to the outer world. Whereas introverts may easily feel overstimulated in social settings or exhausted by social activity. So they may seek solitude to recharge their batteries, and their orientation may be more likely to the inner world of thoughts and ideas.

Let's make the next connection to learning. In terms of preferences and in terms of the conditions in which students perform best, extroverts tend to prefer to work with others and learn with others, so project work, collaboration, group work, these are all preferences of the more extroverted students.

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class discussion December 1, 2016

Online Forum Posts Improve Discussion in a Face-to-Face Classroom

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Jay Howard’s new book, Discussion in the College Classroom (a book that is well worth your time), lays out the research showing that cold calling on students is one of the best ways to get past their “civil attention.” It’s clear to me that once cold calling becomes the norm in a course, using that technique can increase the quality of in-class discussions.

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