Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Student participation: Why it pays to sweat the small stuff

No doubt student participation and discussion matter in all academic disciplines, but I imagine most philosophy instructors think they matter doubly in philosophy. Indeed, we may go so far as to say that learning in philosophy consists in mastering how to play a role in a certain tradition or practice of inquiry.

But how do we encourage student participation? In part, students participate because of the "big choices" we make as instructors: the content and curricular choices and so on. At the same time, plenty of small habits make a difference too — habits that, as Maryellen Weimer reminds us at Faculty Focus, stimulate and reward student participation. I decided to a self-assessment based on Weimer's observations, to see to what degree I'm following these tips about how to encourage participation.

1.    Evidence suggests we overestimate how frequently we instructors ask questions. Am I asking questions frequently enough?
I think so. I’m cognizant of how I’m organizing my class time, so sometimes I ask students to hold off on questions until I explain a point sufficiently. But I try to be intentional about soliciting questions at appropriate gaps or breaks.
2.     Am I waiting long enough for student responses?
Evidence tells us we do wait 2-3 seconds, but should wait 10-20. I think I’ve gotten more comfortable with silence, but would be interested to time myself. Have also tried to stick to the three-hand rule.
3.    Am I encouraging students to reflect before they respond?
Getting better at this. I like to use ‘minute paper’ type questions and group work before I prompt students to respond.
4.    Do I move around?
Yes — very confident about this one. (A few students have asked me to just be still!)
5.     Am I inviting participation through eye contact, etc.?
I think so. Often I note that a student seems to have an idea at hand and I invite that student to contribute.
6.    How intently am I listening?
OK, but suspect I could do better here. I admit (unfortunately) that sometimes I peek at my notes or my watch just to gauge how we’re progressing through the meeting. I do try to paraphrase student questions or comments, especially when I don’t understand or the remark seems especially challenging.
7.    Do I show that I value student contributions?
I try by, e.g., referring back to earlier comments, praising important insights, and so on.
8.    Do I ask students for feedback about my classroom interactions with them?
Not during a course, but it’s part of my end-of-quarter evaluation students are required to complete.

I'd be interested to hear how others would self-assess on these measures — as well as ideas for how to do better.

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