What can professors/instructors/underpaid teaching assistants do to encourage student participation?
In university, some of my classes were dynamic, engaging, and full of students who speak up and actively participate. Other classes were more than half-empty, and it seems like the professor was just an annoying noise in the background while we continued our activity of checking facebook.
This post is about the things I’ve learned from a lifetime of pondering why certain classes are so stimulating, and why others feel like the place where curiosity goes to die.
Change the seating arrangement
Under 20 students
If you teach in a smaller classroom, consider arranging seats in a circle or U-shape. Students will be more motivated to speak when they can see each other’s faces, and this will make it harder for slackers to hide.
Rows are ok, but a U-shape or clusters of desks are even better.
If you teach in a giant auditorium with more empty seats than students, encourage students to sit in the front few rows. Scott Berkun, in his book Confessions of a Public Speaker, says bringing people together at the front of the room turns them into an audience—and allows crowd dynamics to take hold—rather than a smattering of individuals.
He suggests offering free copies of a book in exchange for moving to the front of the room. Throwing out candy would probably work just as well on college students.
(See his blog post for more details: https://scottberkun.com/2005/the-myth-of-the-front-row/.)
Help students prepare for discussions
It’s a pretty safe bet that given the choice, 99.99% of students would rather watch TV than read an academic paper. If they don’t feel like they have to do the readings, then they won’t. Well duh, you’re thinking.
But a lot of professors don’t seem to realize what incentives look like to students. You may think that if you’re going to be discussing the texts each class, students will know they need to read them in advance so they can contribute to the discussion. And yet professors rarely set participation marks at more than 10% of the total grade. Does this translate into needing to read the papers? No.
Let me restate that: NO!!!!!!!
If participation is only worth 10%, it’s too easy for students to rationalize that they can pass the class just by doing well on the other 90%. And if the class discussions would require students to spend a lot of time on preparation (e.g., reading several 50+ page journal articles per week), the decision to sacrifice this 10% is actually the most rational one.
I guess professors would probably be the type of people who do all the assigned work, regardless of whether or not it makes them feel like their precious, limited time on this planet is withering away.
Even worse than the professors who think class discussions will provide an incentive are the ones who think pure academic interest in the subject will be sufficient motivation for students to do all the readings. I can barely contain my rage when some professor says “I realize the course reader is 700 pages long, but don’t complain because the readings are really interesting and enjoyable. Actually, you should be thanking me for giving you this opportunity to expand your minds.”
Are you kidding me? How narcissistic is that, to think that just because you (someone who chose to go into research for a living) find all this research interesting, then obviously a bunch of random 18-year-olds will appreciate it too?
It could be worse. At least my professors seem convinced that the work they assign has some educational value. I once had this teacher in elementary school who said (thinking out loud to herself about whether or not to assign some homework) “Hmm, this doesn’t have to do with our lesson for this week, but this is such a cute activity I think you guys should do it just for fun!”
Yes, I remember this incident from over 10 years ago. And to this day a question has burned inside me: In what way is arbitrarily assigning homework that you yourself have acknowledged is pointless meant to be “fun” for your victims??!!!!!!
(A moment to allow the long-repressed rage to subside.)
Sometimes the readings do turn out to be interesting. But that’s beside the point.
Better ways to motivate students to actually do the reading:
Say that students need to pass each of the individual components in order to pass the class as a whole. So even if participation is worth just 10%, if someone only earns 3% here, he or she will fail the class, regardless of the final grade. This solution will give students an incentive to at least show up to class (assuming attendance is worth half of the participation marks, so perfect attendance will give the student 5% here). However, this policy alone won’t be enough to guarantee an engaged classroom.
Give frequent quizzes on the assigned readings. In my 200-student microeconomics class, for instance, the professor would give us a homework question at the end of each class. At the beginning of the next class, that question would be up on the powerpoint for us to answer with clickers. Our number of correct answers during the course constituted our participation mark.
If you make the questions ones that can easily be answered if you’ve just read the assigned material, this guarantees most students will at least skim the readings five minutes before class.
A typical question should be “What is the author’s main point?” (with multiple choice answers). It should not be some obscure question about a historical date that is mentioned once; if that were the case, it would take hours to prepare for a question that is worth less than 1% of one’s grade, and the students with better things to do will decide that this is a waste of time.
Be a little bit scary
I’m sure most professors want to be liked by their students. But sometimes the ones that have the best reputations as teachers are the ones that are also a little bit scary. Not too scary—just enough to let students know that they will have to actually do some work to be on their good side.
Some professors go out of their way to give this impression on the first day of class. This has the additional benefit of weeding out the students that never intended to do any work in the first place, as those students will look elsewhere for an easy A.
Being a little bit scary means that when you make a rule, you stick to it. For instance, I really like classes where the professor gives you a choice of assignments, but insists that whichever ones you choose to do must be handed in on time. In one class, the professor said there would be three chances to submit a paper during the term, but your grade would only depend on two of the papers.
Since you have three chances, you are not allowed to hand anything in late (unless you have a documented medical or family emergency, as per the university’s policy). Predictably some students came to despise this professor when, having skipped the first paper, they were unable to finish one of the other two on time and ended up failing the class. But having a few students write “worst prof ever, avoid this class at all costs” on your Rate My Professor profile is the price you will have to pay for attracting the best students.
Your class is probably not that interesting, so you have to give us a reason to care.
Originally written: November 11, 2015
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