Increased Class Participation: Accommodating for Diverse Styles and Skills

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Elzbieta Benson, Sociology

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2004

Well-prepared and active students make successful discussion sections. However, not all students read and not all of them participate. As a Graduate Student Instructor, I strive to encourage all students to read their assignments and engage in class discussions.

To achieve these goals, I implement three interrelated strategies. First, I use email to disseminate reading guides in advance of section meetings. These typically consist of a list of key terms found in the readings as well as discussion questions. Occasionally, I also include historical or subject references such as chronologies of events mentioned in the assigned readings (e.g., the French Revolution) or definitions of key concepts. Second, recognizing that many students are reluctant to speak up early in a semester, I invite all students to file their reading notes with me. Many of my “quieter” students eagerly seize this opportunity. I write comments on their reports to indicate where their comprehension is excellent and where it may be lacking. In class, I often read particularly good reports both to reward their authors and help others to improve their own reading and comprehension. Furthermore, I count these written reports towards their authors’ section grade. Predictably, while many students continue to file their reading reports with me throughout a semester, having written these reports and having received my positive feedback typically encourages students to speak up in class as a semester progresses. Lastly, I diversify my class formats to accommodate varied learning and speaking styles of my students. Last fall, for example, rather than mandating in-class presentations, I asked students to volunteer. Surprisingly, almost all students opted to present in class. I also make use of small group discussions. While this format is attractive for many reasons and generally improves class cohesion, I reserve it for occasions when discussion topics are relatively self-contained. In sum, by combining these three methods, study guides, written reports, and in-class presentations, I encourage students to prepare and participate in class discussions.

To assess effectiveness of these teaching strategies, it suffices to glance at my records of class participation. These reveal that all students contribute to sections albeit often in a different manner. Some make strong public speakers while others excel in their written reports. As I already mentioned, however, these different forms of class participation are not mutually exclusive. Students, who begin with written reports, gradually gain confidence to speak in class. Furthermore, as the introduction to sociology last spring demonstrates, students voluntarily choose to assume additional responsibilities. Making oral presentations a choice rather than a requirement not only diminishes stress but also appears to increase students’ sense of commitment to the final product. While I help students prepare their class presentations, I discovered that student-volunteers take lead in the preparation process. Presentations developed in this manner are more competent and creative. In sum, by combining several teaching methods, I manage to enhance students&rsquo commitment to reading and actively participating in class discussions. The quality of our class discussions thus becomes a shared concern as students seek their peers’ approval as much as mine. One might say that our classes become a team effort that produces measurable collective and individual rewards.