Archive for March 29th, 2012

Near the beginning of the semester I wrote about my most recent effort to encourage student participation: requiring students to write answers to discussion questions before class. Now that I am two thirds of the way through the semester I thought that I would provide an update.

Overall, I think that the effort has been a success. On most days, nearly half of the 27 students in class participate at least once, which is a huge improvement over the last time I taught this course. I can’t be sure whether this is attributed to the fact that they are supposed to bring their answers to class with them or the fact that I only give them five student-written discussion questions for each class so it is easier for them to gather their thoughts beforehand (in the past I gave them all of the questions that students wrote rather than narrowing them down myself – in hindsight this may be the most important change I’ve made).

Despite the overall success, I have noticed some areas for improvement. The first is that a few students have developed a habit of bringing the list of discussion questions to class and answering them in class as we discuss them. If we discuss each question, then, and I collect them, there is no way for me to tell that they did not answer the questions ahead of time. Recognizing this, the last time I collected their discussion questions I asked students to write an “X” through any questions that they had answered in class and a surprising number of students did so (and received lower grades because of it), giving me the opportunity to reiterate that students need to answer the questions before class in order for them to be effective at promoting discussion.

The second area that could be improved is my own reluctance to call on students who do not volunteer to speak. Although I warned students at the beginning of the semester that I would do this I have only done it a handful of times. I think that if I were more comfortable calling on a few students who don’t volunteer in each class period I could improve the number of participants on a given day even more.

Although there is definitely room for improvement, there is a night and day difference in both the level of participation and the classroom atmosphere between this semester and the last time I taught this course. Last time, I would pose a question and wait in silence before one or two students would volunteer answers. This semester, it is common for five or six students to give their perspectives on each question, sometimes leading to broader conversations that I can connect to previous course material. The bottom line is that these changes have made my time in the classroom fun again, which is exactly what I needed after a frustrating experience last semester.

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