The Tipping Point: Encouraging Inclusive Participation Through Productive Failure in a Highly Diverse Student Setting

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Sandile Hlatshwayo, Economics

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2015

The benefits of an active learning environment are well established: students’ learning outcomes improve when instructors design courses in a way that promotes discussion, peer-led learning, and focused feedback. However, while teaching an upper-division economics course, I noticed that more traditional active learning methods were unable to garner participation for a select portion of the class. The non-participating students tended to be women, underrepresented minorities, and/or international students, which suggested that these standard techniques were missing an all-important consideration: inclusiveness across a diverse student population. Research suggests that the reasons for non-participation can range from stereotype threat — the fear that they will say or do something that confirms negative stereotypes about their group — to international students’ concerns about whether or not they will sound eloquent in a foreign language (Tatar, 2005). While the causes behind non-participation are wide-ranging, the outcome is singular — a less beneficial classroom experience for non-participators relative to participators.

To address this outage, I implemented a “warm-up” period at the beginning of each section where a series of multiple-choice or true/false questions are asked on the material that is about to be presented. I give the students five to ten minutes (depending on the number of questions) to attempt to solve the problems with one another in small groups of two to four. This approach, wherein students are asked to solve problems they have not yet been given detailed instruction on, is called productive failure. Following the group discussion, I conduct a poll on what the correct answer is. Participation in the poll (i.e., raising your hand) is mandatory. Afterwards, I ask a couple of students to provide explanations for their competing answers before I provide the correct answer with a detailed explanation.

There are several benefits to this warm-up approach. Primarily, Kapur (2008) shows that students who must first attempt to solve problems with very little instruction tend to learn the concepts better once they are given formal instruction. Second, students experience less fear over offering incorrect answers as making public errors becomes a normalized part of the classroom experience. Finally, and centrally, students that tend to be non-participators participate, not just in the small groups and poll, but also during the remainder of the section. I refer to this as the “tipping point” outcome — if non-participating students are encouraged to publically participate in a minor way without fear of embarrassment (e.g., raising one’s hand), they are more likely to continue participating throughout the section.

There are several indications that the warm-up approach has been effective. Participation in my sections increased across all students, rather than just a select few. In addition to a more inclusive pool of students providing answers to my prompts during section, there are also more students asking questions. The increase in students’ questions is particularly beneficial to the class and a strong indicator that active learning is taking place. Midterm reviews also suggested that students find the warm-up exercises useful, with many students praising the process (e.g., “I like going over the multiple choice questions”) and some requesting even “more practice problems.” Finally, the students in my sections performed an average of eight points higher on the midterm relative to students in other sections of the same course that did not benefit from the approach (aside from the way the warm-up approach is implemented, section materials are uniform across sections). In all, the evidence suggests that the warm- up/productive failure approach generates more inclusive participation, and with it, better performance outcomes for all.


Kapur, M. (2008). “Productive Failure.” Cognition and Instruction 26(3), 379–424.

Tatar, S. (2005). “Classroom Participation by International Students: The Case of Turkish Graduate Students.” Journal of Studies in International Education 9(4), 337–355.