Got an email from Dr. Rebecca Plante (Ithaca College) with suggestions on how she gets her students to participate in class. I especially like her idea of giving the students a sense of what type of question she is asking.
Dear Dr. Kirk,
In prep for the spring semester, I am doing my ritual reading and thinking about the tasks ahead. I ran across your compilation entry about various basic classroom issues. One issue relates to getting people to participate in class. I have several tips for this.
First, the professor sets a pretty important tone from Day One forward. I always use my first class day - even if it's 2.5 hours - to model slices of what the rest of the term will be like. So we laugh a lot, I give them a group activity, we have a group discussion, I clarify the syllabus and my expectations, and I ask them about their expectations (and discuss whether I can accommodate those expectations). The important thing is that, since I want engaged participation all semester, I show them on Day One that I expect it and that it will be relatively painless to participate!
Second, the 'painless' aspect of this relates to the way in which I incorporate participation, both on Day One and forward. On Day One, I ask each person to tell me their name when they speak. I try to use at least 3 of the names in subsequent discussion, 'As Joe mentioned earlier...' (and of course in doing this I am also showing the student that I actually value their contribution).
When I ask the group discussions to come to a close and be ready to share, I solicit volunteers. People are then confident that they will not be the victim of a 'gotcha' - they know I will let them signal that they have something to contribute. However, I float in the room during the group discussion, and I am not shy about saying, 'I heard group three discussing the idea of...', and then invite group three to contribute.
Third, I learn their names within 4 classes or two weeks, and I use them frequently. I will circulate during small group discussions and practice with my roster - going to each group and eyeballing my roster until I can memorize everyone.
All of this helps communicate to students that I do care to know who they are and that their perspectives matter. This is the initial hurdle. Once it's accomplished, we can move on to the kinds of participation that transcend simple opinion or mere argument. To facilitate this, I also clarify the kinds of questions I ask the class, for example:
-This is a fishing expedition. I'm fishing for the right answer, so keep that in mind when you volunteer. If there's one right answer, that means that you may have the wrong one. (With this one, it communicates to all that the student may be wrong and I will need to be able to say 'Enh! Next?' - and feelings don't get hurt.)
-This is a brainstorm question. I'm just looking to gather as much description as I can, so everyone just shout out ideas.
-This is an opinion question. What is your opinion? You don't need to have any evidence at this point!
-This is a narrowing question; we're trying to narrow down the universe of possible answers, so I will press you to be specific.
-This is a 'psychic friends' mindreader question - you need to speculate on this. Who wants to take a guess? (With this one specifically, the 'guess' frame/language makes it clear to all that whomever answers is guessing, not necessarily speaking authoritatively.)
Keep in mind that I tell the students which kind of question I am asking - not every single time, like a robot, but most times. How on earth can I expect the students to be comfortable participating when I can easily imagine that they are afraid of looking dumb, not having the right answer, or being made fun of? This approach has worked, over 10 years, to give me high levels of productive participation, even in classes of 235 people (along with also giving me the thing I value most - a relaxed, laughing group).
Thanks for doing your website! It's been a valuable resource and makes me feel like others are on the same path, have the same quandaries, etc. (It has also inspired me, btw, to do some regular start-of-the-semester rituals to ease me into the next 15 weeks.)