Monday, October 08, 2007

Classroom Participation Norms

A few weeks ago, Chris Bertram of Crooked Timber had a post about trying to encourage student participation in small seminars:

Teachers everywhere are facing the prospect of groups of sullen silent students, or groups composed of the cowed majority plus one ignorant loudmouth who you can’t shut up. And then there’s the group which works absolutely fine but when those ten file out, and another ten sit down, and you do exactly the same thing but nothing happens, long silences, etc. And then there’s the temptation to overcompensate and turn those seminar groups into a mini-lecture where you do all the talking.

Teachers, students: what are your hints and tips for small group teaching? What works and what doesn’t? What’s the optimal size? Do sex ratios in groups make a difference to the dynamic? And what are the other pathologies that I haven’t even mentioned?


I may TA next semester (I put my name into one of the grad departments at Liberal College, after the Ph.D. students get priority I may get a chance for Law and Economics or Comparative Constitutional Law). So I'm interested in this from the instructor perspective, especially since it's not too far away from market for me (ack, ack). I'm always looking to improve my pedagogical skills. I have a lot of TA experience, starting from my undergraduate years--I've TA'd about four courses in political science, and two courses in ethnic studies classes on race and the law. I've read alot of books on criticla pedagogical methods--hooks, Freire, Vygotsky, etc. And while I feel fairly comfortable in front of a classroom (my lecture/presentation style is better paced than my natural speech, as is my overal confidence and mien), I'm not quite sure how to handle small seminars. It's one thing to lecture--it's quite another to referee adults and encourage discussion.

I liked this advice:

Have students prepare written answers to one of the discussion questions you will take up in the seminar. Shy students are more confident about jumping into the discussion for the issue/question they have specifically prepared for. This is also a big help with students that have another language than that which the seminars are given in as their first language.


WAIT! Get comfortable with long silent pauses. Be quite and wait for the students to talk. The is a battle of the wills the teacher is well placed to win.

WAIT! Allow students to keep talking and debating amongst themselves even if it appears that they are not getting to the heart of the issue. I usually stop myself from interrupting on at least the first two occasions I get the impulse to do so. Often I am pleasantly surprised that when students do eventually get to an important discussion. They seem to learn much more if they get to the heart of the issue and then I can simply explain to them why what they are talking about is important.

Sex ratio seems to make a difference. When the class is dominated by women they also dominate the discussion and visa versa. In both cases it is sometimes necessary to help the minority sex into the discussion.



And this:

At the beginning of a discussion, ask a fairly broad, big, open-ended question. The best of these questions have the following characteristics: 1) They provide prompts and opportunities for the best students to answer in a sophisticated manner, but aren’t so intimidating that students with less confidence of analytic thinking skills can’t potentially answer them. 2) The potential range of answers to the question might direct class discussion toward a range of issues you were hoping to raise in discussion that day, and 3) The question should be difficult to answer, but not totally impossible to come up with something, for those who have not completed the reading.*


Then, rather than let the question just sit there, tell the students to write an answer, and give them five minutes. Let them use their books, and make sure not to frame it as a quiz, but collecte them at least occasionally and grade them on a credit/no credit basis (but dole out praise for really smart answers sparingly). Then, once the five minutes is up, begin the discussion. No one can credibly claim they’ve got nothing to say, since they’ve got a half-page in front of them that must say something.


Other comments were very good practical advice: make participation a part of the grade, have students come up with discussion questions and actually discuss them; center each class around a student session leader/presenter.

Right now I'm still on the student side, even though my courses are all graduate level and there is no shortage of participation. I very much enjoy the student session/leader model, and am less enamored of the discussion question model when it is "busy work"--I think both the professor adn the students should come up with topics for discussion, and to get the questions in on time requires the students to read quite early--as if the seminar were the only class on the students' schedule. It's fine to make 1-2 (or a smal group) of students responsible for coming up with discussion questions, but for the entire seminar to do so is quite the undertaking--and do the math; a 10 person seminar means 20 questions (if you require the students to come up with two each) and not all the questions will be addressed. It's just busy work, and forces all of the students to do the reading on a tight time table (because questions have to be turned in 48-72 hours ahead). I'm pro discussion, anti fake homework. But I'm fine with signing up for particular weeks as session leader to present summaries of the material, introduce discussion questions, and present on new scholarship (cutting edge readings). That's a great model for encouraging class discussion.

What I'm struck by as a student (again) is how annoyed I can get at my peers. I forgot how annoying classroom dynamics can be outside of law school. Law school always has gunners (cough, Belle, cough), those enthusiastic volunteers who sit in the front row and raise their hands repeatedly. For some reason, last year I wasn't as active a participant as I usually was in law school. Probably because, in my 4L LL.M year, I was kind of resentful that I had to take classes and wished that I was just writing. Also, I hated being at the law school, due to unrelated law school drama. I wanted to leave right after class was over. But now I'm taking classes in other graduate departments, and it's incredibly invigorating and interesting. It feels so new. I am glad to be in school again.

But I'm still kind of annoyed by the other types of participants, like The Interruptor and The Professor Usurper--Gunners, I'm used to. And the Socratic method, much as I dislike it, is definitely a method that endows the professor with mediation power, so even Gunners are checked. The professor calls on students. The professor can bring back the conversation to the original posed question by saying "interesting, any other thoughts" and calling on someone else. Seminars are much more free-flowing. In the law school, they are somewhat structured--maybe students are so unused to talking freely in their other courses, they learn a certain set of norms and codes for looking for raised hands, talking in turn, deferring to the professor. You may be in an _____ And the Law seminar, but having just come from some bar course, you still have that mindset and it's difficult to reorient yourself even when you change classrooms. Law school pedagogy carries over from one course to another.

Sometimes I wonder if that's a good thing. I really do like vigorous classroom discussion. But The Interruptor--ugh, not that we're in kindergarten and hands must always be raised, but there is the idea of "taking turns" in seminars. I really need to pipe up more and just shout before the discussion changes, because there is a woman in one of my Organizations courses that just keeps talking and bringing up questions and mini-lectures of her own--even when others are session leaders! She even does this when the professor lectures, which is why I call her The Professor Usurper. She even tries to steer the class pedagogy, saying that we, as a class, should try to answer do this classroom experiment to evaluate our own heuristics, or "what I would like us to discuss is _____ and then answer this question: _______." She is even suggesting that each week someone bring in a snack for the class (and interestingly, only the female students bring food, despite there being three men). She is BOSSY. The professor occasionally defers to her, and she talks over people and talks over him. I am all for active participation. I don't want to "silence" her--and I'm glad that she is so engaged. But I wonder if there should be a code of norms for bossy types.

I wonder what professors can do to encourage shy students to participate, and pipe down too-dominant types. Gunners are good, I think--someone should talk, and if they are on point and respect other norms of taking turns and deferring to the professor, then more power to them. Plus, I am a gunner, and I can't self-hate. But I've been the shy student as well, and I think shy students can be encouraged to participate through discussion questions, by calling on them, by making them session leader, etc. But I think that underestimated is the professor's role in encouraging all the above, while recognizing their role as referee of adults--no doubt, Bossy Student has the confidence of a returning student, who probably has significant teaching experience herself. So if you are managing a classroom of adults, you have to respect their autonomy while also thinking "hey wait, I'm the professor" and making sure that everyone gets a chance to talk, and that you get a chance to teach.

Seminars are more collaborative learning environments than lecture courses--but that doesn't mean that the professor's expertise and advanced pedagogical training are any less important. Even in collaborative learning environments, students need a leader, one with the authority to moderate discussion, and direct the learning towards certain pedagogical goals, within certain methodological parameters.

And no, I'm not just saying this to shut up Bossy Student. I really believe it.

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