Posts Tagged ‘Class Participation’

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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Over the past few years I’ve had a variety of experiences with discussion-based courses. In a few cases, students have come to class prepared and I was fairly successful at engaging most of them in class discussions. In a number of recent courses, however, students have either not done the reading , not engaged with the reading on a level deep enough to answer questions about it, or not willing to answer whatever questions I’ve prepared about the reading in class. In one course this semester I have implemented two changes in an effort to combat these problems: distributing discussion questions before class and (gasp!) requiring students to write answers to these questions that they bring with them to class.

I’ve used discussion questions in several previous courses, including last year’s version of this semester’s discussion-based course, but it was often evident that students weren’t actually thinking about the questions beforehand. Since my goal is to encourage students to take more responsibility for their learning outside of class, my implementation was clearly missing the mark. Reading quizzes also failed to prepare students for class discussion. This semester I decided to hold my students accountable by requiring them to answer the discussion questions outside of class, which I have been collecting periodically. I also told them that, since they are required to answer the questions outside of class, I will sometimes call on them to participate in class when they have not volunteered to do so. So far, at least, that has not been necessary since students have done a good job of coming to class prepared to participate. I’ve also had participation from a larger number of students than in previous semesters. I recognize that I need to work hard to keep the participation distributed evenly around the classroom, but at this point I am cautiously optimistic.

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Although I’ve been teaching college students for years they’ve only recently started appearing in my dreams. First, there was the pre-ASA dream in which students were talking amongst themselves on the first day of class instead of listening attentively to the details of my exciting syllabus. Then, over winter break, I had two more dreams about frustrating students.

The first was similar to my dream this summer. In the dream it was the first day of the semester and I was going over the syllabus when I realized that I hadn’t prepared the course web page. I was angry with myself for forgetting to prepare for class (I ended up showing them the web page from the previous time I taught the course) but this anger quickly shifted to my students, who were talking to each other from opposite sides of the classroom despite my efforts to discuss the syllabus. Upon waking I realized that both the classroom and the students were unfamiliar to me but the lack of authenticity hadn’t stopped me from being angry.

The second dream is less clear. I remember teaching a class in the computer lab near my office and that there were one or two students that I knew in the class. The only other thing I remember is that I woke up shortly after 4 am and I was extremely angry about whatever had happened in the dream. The hours of sleep before I got up for the day seem to have erased the source of this anger.

These dreams make me wonder if I am witnessing the slow decline of my sanity due to inattentive students. Since I had one dream before the fall semester and two dreams before the spring semester maybe I’ll have three dreams before next fall and four before next spring. Or maybe the dreams are increasing exponentially, so two will be followed by four, which will be followed by eight. This could continue until all of my dreams are about frustrating students and I completely forget that I actually enjoy teaching. The funny thing is that, unlike my dreams, my frustration in recent semesters has been centered on students who do not talk in class rather than on students who do but shouldn’t.

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Despite the fact that I often complain about students, I would like to recognize one of my favorite aspects of having the same students multiple semesters in a row: the ability to witness student improvement. Once in a while, somebody that I know as a C-student will come into a second or third semester with me and will suddenly say things indicating that he or she has done the reading and then use this information on quizzes, papers, and exams. When I noted an increase in a particular student’s class participation from the previous semester, the student replied, “I know, I stepped up my game.” As a professor, I love seeing students step up their game. These situations also remind me, however, that this is something that a student has to want to do and that these increased efforts have little or nothing to do with me.

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As the fall semester winds down I find myself thinking about how to improve the less-than-perfect aspects of my courses for the spring.  Unfortunately, I still haven’t found the perfect method for motivating my students to come to class prepared to engage in intelligent discussions of the reading (and it is increasingly evident that daily quizzes in 50-minute classes have a number of drawbacks).  To this end I am considering a range of options including providing discussion questions ahead of class and taking some of the control over who participates and who does not away from students.  I am also thinking of stealing some lines from a syllabus by David Foster Wallace.

Katie Roiphe at Slate notes that Wallace’s section on participation notes that:

Even in a seminar class, it seems a little silly to require participation. Some students who are cripplingly shy, or who can’t always formulate their best thoughts and questions in the rapid back-and-forth of a group discussion, are nevertheless good and serious students. On the other hand, as Prof — points out supra, our class can’t really function if there isn’t student participation—it will become just me giving a half-assed ad-lib lecture for 90 minutes, which (trust me) will be horrible in all kinds of ways.

As you might expect, he also has some words of wisdom for students’ typical approach to writing:

If you are used to whipping off papers the night before they’re due, running them quickly through the computer’s Spellchecker, handing them in full of high-school errors and sentences that make no sense and having the professor accept them ‘because the ideas are good’ or something, please be informed that I draw no distinction between the quality of one’s ideas and the quality of those ideas’ verbal expression, and I will not accept sloppy, rough-draftish, or semiliterate college writing. Again, I am absolutely not kidding.

While I don’t have the reputation of David Foster Wallace (nor am I teaching at Pomona), giving students a clearer picture of expectations upfront is a key component of holding them to those expectations near the end of the semester.

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Early in the semester I stated:

Thankfully, none of my classes have what I consider to be too many students.  I was surprised recently to hear somebody complain about having 27 students instead of the expected 22.  I realize that, for a class of that size, five students is a 23% increase, but I cannot yet grasp the idea that 27 students can be too many.  Of course, I’ve been conditioned by teaching years of classes with between 50 and 80 students.  Maybe I need to bookmark this post and read it in a year or two when I find myself acclimated to my new environment and complaining to the registrar about every student over 20.

While I still don’t feel that any of my classes are too big, I have been surprised by the lack of difference between teaching a class of 65 students and a class of 35 students.  One nice thing is that grading takes about half as long.  In terms of the proportion of students who participate daily and the day-to-day classroom experience, though, things are not a lot different.  I’m not ready to start complaining yet, but I wouldn’t mind a smaller class.  I guess I vastly overestimated the amount of time it would take to change my perspective on this issue.

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Since I took it upon myself to school my freshmen students to the fact that students who talk in class at a private college are wasting a lot of money, student behavior has greatly improved.  Sure, students still occasionally talk to each other during class, but these sidebar conversations are much shorter, quieter, and less distracting overall than they were before I staged my intervention.  Unfortunately, I’ve had another problem related to student talking: many of them are reluctant to participate in class.

Over the course of my teaching career I have done a lot of things to try to improve student participation and to give quiet students a chance to participate in meaningful ways.  These efforts have included in-class writing, debates, and the ever-present think/pair/share.  Despite the use of these efforts this semester, there have been many days when I posed questions only to be met with blank expressions or students looking down at their notes.

Obviously, students who have not prepared for class may not feel comfortable participating, but when I call on students they typically have relevant contributions to make.  I’ve considered whether I am simply asking the wrong questions, and some of my questions are surely too obvious, too complex, or considered irrelevant, but I do not think that this is typically the case.  As I learned student names this semester and was better able to call on students to draw them into class discussions, the problem lessened.  The idea that student participation is a key part of my classes gradually seems to be sinking in, but there are still times when I want to tell my students to S(peak)TFU.

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