by Ravit Dotan, Philosophy
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2019
One of the most common problems GSIs encounter is low student participation in sections. Too often, only a handful of students ask questions, interact with the instructor, or interact with one another. This situation is unfortunate. First, active participation is crucial to achieving the pedagogical goals of most classes. Students need to ask their questions in order to learn what the answers are, and they need to engage with others in order to cultivate skills such as constructing arguments or raising and responding to objections. Second, low participation is an equity problem, since marginalized students are often inclined to participate less frequently than others. One result is that it may be more difficult for them to succeed in the class. Moreover, low participation may reinforce imposter syndrome and other kinds of limiting beliefs. I decided to transform my sections after numerous students shared the sentiment that when only a handful of students participate, others lose the ability to see themselves as the kind of people who can make valuable contributions, deserve to have questions answered, or even belong in section.
To diversify and increase the number of students who participate, I use a combination of methods to build community and help students feel responsible for the quality of sections. The key is to allow students to take an active role in shaping sections, and to address challenges in open conversation. I set the tone on the very first day, when I lead an open discussion about the importance and challenges of class participation, and have students make name tents that are used throughout the semester. I explain that we should all know each other’s names—not just the instructor. At the beginning of each section, I ask the students to spend two minutes talking casually with one student they don’t know well. As a community forms over time, students learn to be less intimidated by, and more companionate toward, one another. After briefly recapitulating the week’s material, I then turn the discussion over to the students using a method called the “floating chair.” The core of this method is that the person who is currently speaking is responsible for choosing who goes next among those with hands raised. I, the instructor, also need to be given permission to speak by one of the students if I want to contribute to the discussion (unless I need to enforce the norms of section). At the end of section, I summarize the discussion and correct any lingering misconceptions. This way, students begin setting the agenda, and, as most questions and comments are raised by other students, many feel more comfortable interacting.
To assess the effectiveness of this method, I took notice of how many students participated. Indeed, more students participated in my sections since I started using this method, and the students themselves indicated that their engagement was high in end-of-semester-evaluations. However, I also approached the assessment of effectiveness in the spirit described above. To that end, I designed a different kind of mid-semester teaching evaluation. In a form I handed out during section, I asked students to write down (1) what I, the instructor, was doing well and what I could do to improve future sections; and (2) what they, the student, were doing well and what they could do to improve future sections. After collecting the forms, we had a class discussion about the different kinds of things we could all do, in our respective roles, to improve sections. After this activity, I was able to improve the format, and I noticed a marked improvement in the participation of several students.