by Paul Dosh, Political Science
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2000
Despite great variation in styles of learning, “class participation” has become almost synonymous with talking. This has resulted in two problems in my classes. First, evaluation of participation is often based on how much a student speaks in class. This is unfair both to students who participate more effectively in other ways and to English-language learners who find speaking in class settings intimidating. Second, this understanding of participation discourages these students from participating in the way that will best help them learn. With these concerns in mind, I sought to structure my teaching of Latin American Political Change in a way that both recognized diverse learning styles in grading and also encouraged alternative forms of participation.
Encouraging diverse forms of participation began on the first day of class with the tone that I set and the grading system I presented. First, I explained my perspective in writing. My section syllabus stated that “different people have different ways they best participate, all of which are valid: active listening, thoughtful preparation, sharing a well-formulated idea after a long pause, helping a classmate understand a concept, coming to office hours, bringing news articles to class.” Second, I spoke about the merit and importance of different styles of learning. I explained what was written on the syllabus and asked students what they liked best about other discussion sections. Third, I reinforced what I had written and said with their own writing. Each student filled out a form that asked for their first language, the three best ways they participate, and the style of learning that is most difficult for them.
Setting the tone and structure of the class was important, but encouraging diverse participation required persistent and explicit efforts throughout the semester. One example was when groups took turns teaching section. In preparation for this task, I emphasized diverse participation in two ways. First, I reminded students that they each had different levels of comfort with teaching and that they should divide up their labor in a way that made everyone feel confident about his/her role. Second, I encouraged them to structure their time in a way that would accommodate the multiple learning styles of our class. These two goals reinforced each other. In their efforts to create a section that was comfortable for the whole class, groups tended to divide their time into segments that provided diverse ways for them to teach section. Thus, some students led small group discussions, some gave mini-lectures, some wrote timelines on the board, and others spent more time on creative handouts, outlines, and artwork. This is one example that worked well in my class, but explicit reminders were needed throughout the semester in order to encourage students to participate and keep participating in their own style.
Finally, I affirmed different learning styles both during the semester and in final evaluations. I showed students that their participation was valued and that it “counted.” For example, I gave each group a written evaluation that affirmed each individuals style of classroom leadership and also provided suggestions for improving their teaching with respect to the learning styles of other students. Many affirmations were less formal. When a quiet student took the lead in her small group, I made a point of telling her after class how pleased I was that she was so well-prepared. When students came to office hours or emailed the class a newspaper article, I made a point of affirming their contributions. Finally, in our last class, I gave each student their section grade accompanied by a summary of their diverse contributions to class.
My efforts to broaden the scope of participation required assessment of two goals: 1) Was my grading actually recognizing alternative contributions? and 2) Did students feel their style of learning was valued in the class? To assess the first goal I sorted my list of students into groups of those who talked a lot, those who talked some, and those who rarely spoke in class. I compared the overall distribution of grades in each group and was very satisfied with the results. There were talkers whose section grades were only fair and there were very quiet students whose grades were excellent. To assess the second goal, I solicited their evaluations and also conducted my own observations. Mid- and late-semester evaluations asked them: “Do you feel your ideas can be heard and respected?” and “Has section been useful given your style of learning? Why or why not?” Student responses confirmed the value of this approach. Several mentioned their relief that their work was “finally!” recognized. Another said she‘d never been allowed to write some assignments in Spanish. One student “liked how everything you do counts.” Conducting my own observations was possible both when students were broken into small groups and also when watching a videotape of my teaching. Watching the video and reviewing my written observations allowed me to see trends of which students were engaged and how.
Reflecting on my goals, I would say I was very successful in restructuring how participation is understood and evaluated in my classes. I also made significant improvements in affirming and encouraging diverse forms of effective learning, but I think even more needs to done in this area.