Thirty years of research in the scholarship of teaching and learning in higher education have demonstrated that when students are engaged in the classroom, they learn more (Pascarella and Terezini 1991, 2005). Classroom discussion is likely the most commonly used strategy for actively engaging students. Whether it is a seminar course centered on discussion or a lecture punctuated by moments of interaction with students, discussion is likely second only to lecture as the most frequently used pedagogical strategy.
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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?
I continue to be impressed by the need for teachers to clarify common aspects of instruction instead of assuming that students’ understanding of what they entail are the same as ours. Participation is a good example. How often is it defined in the course syllabus? How often is it characterized beyond the basics when it’s discussed at the beginning of the course or at different times throughout the semester? We do probably agree on the essentials—questions, answers, and comments—but much more than that is needed if classroom interaction is to realize its potential as a student engagement strategy. Here’s an example of the degree of clarification I think we should be after:
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?
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.
When I was in college I never raised my hand. Never. I didn’t raise my hand when I thought I knew the answer. I didn’t raise my hand even when I knew the answer with 100% absolute certainty. And I didn’t raise my hand when the professor was practically pleading for someone, anyone, to please participate.
All too often students shuffle into class, take notes while the professor lectures for 50 minutes or so, and then pack up and leave. Rinse and repeat throughout the semester. Some might never raise their hand, offer their opinion, or even learn the name of the person sitting in front of them.
If you’ve been teaching for any amount of time, you probably have a few nicknames for students based on the personality traits they exhibit. Roben Torosyan, PhD, associate director of the Center for Academic Excellence at Fairfield University, has some nicknames for his students, too. Names like Q, Sunny, and Light Bulb.
Participation is one of those workhorse instructional strategies—easy to use, straightforward, expected, and often quite successful at accomplishing a number of learning goals. It’s good to remind ourselves of its many different uses, especially on those days when getting students to participate feels like pulling hens’ teeth.