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Interactive strategies promote student participation


I think that in any class there will be students that are not well enough prepared to participate in a discussion, and that’s not something that can be controlled.  However, there are plenty of other reasons that students would choose not to participate and those are things that you CAN, and should, control if you want to increase participation.

Firstly, I think that it’s very important to create an environment where discussion and participation behavior is normative.  It is more difficult to just “spring” a discussion on your students if that environment hasn’t been established.  If your primary mode of interaction with the students is through lecture or chalkboard, and the students have become accustomed to only receiving information that way, it will be a difficult transition if they are being suddenly asked to interact with you.

In my courses, I start very early in the semester engaging the students in a number of ways including using a “conversational” tone and including lots of little questions in my normal classroom speech.  Students don’t always need to verbally answer questions to be visibly engaged and interacting with the ideas; in fact,  monitoring their facial expressions and body language can sometimes be all that is needed to carry on a “conversation” efficiently with an extremely large number of students.  This way, the students become acclimated to the expectation that they provide some sort of response all the time, even if they aren’t always verbally responding.

It’s also important to realize that asking a student to step out and verbally respond is a risky thing (socially) for students, regardless of the importance of this to their education.  For this reason, even if a student’s answer to your question is wrong, it is critical to find something good (and even intelligent) about what the student said and to indicate this approval when you respond to the student’s answer.  If the other students see that participating in class is a praiseworthy thing (as opposed to something that may expose them to even a minor amount of disapproval), then the interaction with you was a social “win” for that student.   This is a relatively easy incentivization strategy to encourage students to  choose to verbally respond.  Also take advantage of the fact that in every group of students, a few of them almost always step out early and take these risks, which should be considered a critical opportunity for you.  Whether or not the other students in the class choose to follow the example of these “early discussion adopters” depends on their observation of how you interact with these brave students.

Finally, the students in our engineering classrooms are naturally organized into clusters, sitting at small tables.  I use this arrangement to occasionally ask all of the students at a table to discuss a key point and then have a representative convey the group’s answer to the class.  This way, even the students who would never respond to me are getting an opportunity to participate through discussion with other students, verbally commit to some sort of response, and then observe the outcome of the discussion.  This may be more difficult if there aren’t natural groupings of students (like physical tables).  However, you could ask students to “form” small groups at the beginning of the semester and then simply direct them, from time to time, to get into their groups to think (and discuss) about how they would respond to my question or to my challenge.

By Carol DeArment, CIDDE



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