Thursday, January 10, 2019

Five ways to get your students to participate more in class

U.S. Department of Agriculture / Flickr

Over the years I've stumbled across a number of techniques for improving student participation in my classes that have worked really well. Here are the five key ones (you can click on each one to be taken to a more detailed description):
  1. Explain why participation is important.
  2. Make sure students are prepared for weekly discussions.
  3. Have students self-report their participation marks.
  4. Get students to discuss a question in small groups first.
  5. Call on students at random.

Full post:

About five years ago, I was asked to take over a new course at KPU, the university where I teach: Introduction to Journalism.

I was worried.

Not because I didn't know the subject matter. I'd been a working journalist for more than 15 years.

And not because I didn't know how to teach. At that point, I'd already been teaching for several years.

The problem was that the Intro course had been designed by its previous instructor as a discussion course. Each week, students came to class and — facilitated by the instructor — discussed issues like journalism ethics and the business model for news.

I had no idea how to teach such a course.

In my many years of teaching, both at the university and my own private workshops, I always taught people how to do things. Whether it was how to build an interactive chart, or how to do a court search, my classes were always very hands-on and practical.

Class participation was always a part of my other classes, but it wasn't the point of the class.

I worried about how I would get my students engaged enough in discussions about journalism to fill up a three-hour class each week.

Unfortunately, the first couple of times I taught the class, many of my worst fears were realized.

I'd throw a discussion question out to the class — "So, when is it OK to use anonymous sources in a news story?" — and be met with stony silence. Sometimes, the one or two keeners in class would share their thoughts, but getting the rest of the students to take part was like pulling teeth.

I'd occasionally pull the classic instructor trick of calling on a student who wasn't participating to share their thoughts. But doing that always seemed slightly mean — putting a student on the spot who wasn't prepared — and, regardless, it rarely elicited more than a shrug and a poorly thought out answer.

I started to dread the days that I taught the Intro course. I suspect my students did too.

But then things started to change.

Almost by accident — an article here, a podcast there — I picked up a few ideas for how to improve student participation and gave them a test-run in my class. After some initial success, I got brave enough to experiment with some ideas of my own.

Over time, the participation levels in my Intro class started to increase, gradually at first and then quite dramatically.

What had once been three hours of painful, awkward silence became a spirited weekly discussion with students who were engaged and interested in the topic.

Intro to Journalism is now one of my favourite classes to teach, one I look forward to every week.

In the hopes it might be of some assistance to other instructors out there, below I share the five things I think made the biggest difference in improving participation in my class.

While my experience is at the university level, I think most of these techniques could be easily applied to high-school classes and (with some modification) even lower grades.

One big caveat: I'm a data guy so I feel it's important to note that I haven't subjected any of these techniques to rigorous analysis like a randomized controlled trial. My evidence in support of all of them is purely anecdotal and based entirely on a single course. Your results may vary.

But getting students to participate more is such a common challenge in teaching that I thought these ideas were worth sharing.

So, without further ado, here are my five tips for getting your students to participate more in class.

1. Explain why participation is important.

If participation is a key part of your course (and especially if it's a component in a student's final grade), I think it helps to explain to your students why.

Part of that explanation, of course, is personal: Participation is an important part of their own learning, to help them understand the course material better.

But I also impress on students that we're all in this together: We're going to be together in this room for three hours every week and a lot of that time is going to be taken up by class discussion. If people don't participate, those three hours are going to go by really slowly. In contrast, if everyone participates and does their part, the hours will fly by and we'll all have fun. I find students really respond to that sense of common purpose.

2. Make sure students are prepared for weekly discussions.

A common problem in teaching is the "curse of knowledge": Teachers are such experts in their field that they have trouble remembering how daunting a topic can be to complete beginners.

I was often guilty of this when it came to class discussions. Some topics are so commonly discussed among working journalists — the use of anonymous sources, newspaper paywalls — that I expected students to already have opinions about them, or to be able to come up with an opinion on the spot.

But, of course, a first-year student taking an introductory journalism course has, in most cases, never thought about these topics at all.

If you want to have a meaningful class discussion about a topic, you need to make sure students have had some time to learn about the topic and reflect on it before class begins.

The typical way to deal with this challenge is with weekly readings: Have students read an article or two on the topic before class so they're ready to discuss it.

The problem, of course, is that many students won't do the assigned readings or, even if they do, will skim them in a way that doesn't prepare them to think deeply about the discussion topic.

I use a couple of strategies to address that.

First, each week, along with the assigned readings, I give students a single question about the readings. For example, I'll have them read an article or two about paying sources for stories and then pose the question: "Under what conditions is it OK for a news organization to pay money to a source for a story?"

Each week, students have to email me a very brief "weekly report" in which they answer — in at least two sentences — that week's question. I don't make the reports worth a lot of marks, but it's worth enough that students won't blow them off.

The other technique I use are quizzes. Each week, I give students a brief, three-question multiple-choice quiz on that week's readings. The quizzes are designed to be super easy for students who've done the readings (i.e. "What is this reading about?") and super hard for those who haven't.

Together, the report and the quiz make it hard to do well in the class without doing the readings. And it ensures students are adequately prepared to participate fully in class discussions.

I often still spring some new questions on students in class — or get them to respond to a video or audio clip that they're seeing in class for the first time. But at least students are well prepared for that one, main question every week.

3. Have students self-report their participation marks.

This idea I stole from the instructor who taught the Intro class before me, and it's a great one.

Instead of the instructor being responsible for keeping track of each student's participation marks, students report their own participation each week on a sheet of paper (here's an example).

I tell students they're expected to speak at least twice each class. They then give themselves a checkmark for each time they speak (up to a maximum of two).

This idea was meant to solve one problem: In a large class, it's really hard to know every student's name at the start of the course.

But I think it also solves another problem: It makes participation marks simple and transparent.

Participation marks that are assigned by the instructor can often be a bit ambiguous. Are students being marked on how much they participated in class? On the quality of their in-class contributions?

Worst of all, I think that very ambiguity can discourage some students from participating. Many students don't participate because they don't think they have anything valuable to say. If an instructor is going to ultimately decide whether your participation is "good" or "bad", it's too easy to convince yourself that you don't have anything "good" to say and not participate at all.

And, from the instructor's perspective, even if some students have "better" things to say in class than others, you want all students to participate, not just the keeners.

A self-reported checkmark system removes that ambiguity. Attend every class and speak twice each class? You're going to get 100% for participation. Simple.

To avoid abuse, I put some basic parameters on what qualifies for a checkmark: It needs to be a contribution of at least a couple of sentences (ie. "I agree with what she said" doesn't count). I also remind students that there is nothing more obvious in class than someone who says nothing, so if they cheat and give themselves checkmarks when they don't deserve them, I'll notice.

Finally, I recommend putting out the checkmark sheet at the end of class. If you bring it out at the break, some students will give themselves two checkmarks and then skip the second half of class.

4. Get students to discuss a question in small groups first. 

It took awhile before I tried this one, but I've found it makes a big difference.

Before we discuss a topic, or question, as a whole class, I have students discuss the question in smaller groups first.

Using this simple "team maker" tool, I break the class into four or five groups and then give them 5 to 10 minutes to discuss the topic in their small groups. Then I open it up to a discussion of the whole class.

This isn't typical "group work". Students aren't asked to present on behalf of their group or anything like that. The small-group discussions are simply meant as a warm up for the main event. But it works wonders.

Shy students may think what they have to say isn't very interesting and so are reluctant to say it in front of 30 or more of their fellow classmates. But put them in a group of just five or six fellow students, and it's not nearly so intimidating to share their thoughts.

And when that small group finds what they have to say interesting, it gives them the confidence to share their thoughts with the whole class later.

The key, I think, is not to overdo it with the small group discussions. Five minutes is often plenty to get the ball rolling. It's also important to stress to students that just saying something in their small group doesn't count for a participation checkmark. They need to share it with the whole class for it to count.

5. Call on students at random.

This idea came from a interview with education expert Doug Lemov on the EconTalk podcast. At about the 18:00 mark, Lemov talks about using "cold calling" in an elementary-school class. Instead of asking a question and waiting for students to raises their hand, Lemov encourages teachers to just call on any student at random.

The genius of cold-calling, according to Lemov, is that it forces all students, even those not called upon, to think about their answer. It's also a lot faster, because you don't have to wait for students to raise their hand before calling on them or — even worse – have no students raise their hand and then basically plead with your class for someone to answer the question.

What's interesting about cold-calling is that it's a technique that's already used by most instructors, but poorly: Either out of desperation, when no one raises their hand. Or (somewhat) cruelly, to put a student who never participates on the spot.

The key to making it work, I think, is consistency: To use it all the time, for every question.

I jokingly tell my students that, instead of picking on the one or two students who never raise their hand, I instead pick on everybody.

I'm also a bit more systematic in my approach.

Partly because it takes me awhile to learn my students' names and partly because I don't trust myself to be completely fair in calling on students, each class I randomize the class list. (I randomly sort an Excel spreadsheet but this online list randomizer works just as well.)

Then — for every question — I start by calling on the three students whose names are at the top of the randomized list. Then, for the next question, I call on the next three. And so on. The first time I do this, I show students how I randomize the list on screen. Every time after that, it's secret, so students never know when they might be called on.

While I start each class discussion by calling on students at random, after the first three students have been called on, any student can raise their hand and talk. And, in my experience, many do.

I think that's because, fearing they might be called on, most students have prepared a response in their head. So, then, when they're not called on, they figure they might as well share their thought anyways and get their participation checkmark.

Those are my five suggestions for how to get students to participate more.

If you've got a trick to share, please add it in the comments. Note: To avoid spam comments, all comments on this site are moderated, so it may take awhile for your comment to show up.

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