by Suzanne Scoggins, International and Area Studies (Home Department: Political Science)
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2014
Undergraduates in discussion-based sections often find it difficult to participate orally in a large group, even when ten percent or more of their grade depends on participation. In a diverse group of students, it is often women, students of color, and international students who become reticent when a handful of vocal students dominate the class discussion. This phenomenon affects more than just individuals; the entire section suffers. When a few students dominate, it diminishes the opportunity to hear different voices. This pattern, once established, worsens with time, and by the end of a semester, only a handful of students may be participating in section.
Encouraging the majority of students to speak up during the first few sections is crucial for establishing a good pattern of participation, but this can be difficult. As a GSI, I have tried several approaches, including starting the first class with an icebreaker involving every student, staging a classroom debate in the second or third section, and reaching out to quieter students directly to encourage them to participate. While these are good strategies, they are not enough to prevent undesirable participation patterns. What works is dividing students into groups of two, assigning them specific tasks or questions, and then asking each group of two to report back to the entire section. If used consistently in the first few sections, this strategy encourages an atmosphere of inclusion that can last an entire semester. Later, after the majority of students feel comfortable speaking up, the GSI can branch out by asking students to divide into larger groups or leaving the discussion open to those who raise their hands, but it is important to periodically go back to the groups-of-two structure to ensure that all students continue to feel comfortable speaking in section.
There are several ways to facilitate participation with groups of two. Sometimes I select key terms from the reading and ask each group to explain them to the rest of the class, or assign each group a separate question about the class material. At other times I might ask groups to take a stance of their choosing in a larger debate and interact with their peers. Since the goal is for members from every group speak up, this strategy is time-consuming and sometimes results in a class discussion that gets repetitive, but it is the most effective participation strategy I have found.
The groups-of-two discussion strategy works because it reduces the cost of participation for students who are inclined to speak less while simultaneously limiting the speaking time for more outspoken students. By equalizing the air time, no single student is able to monopolize the conversation. Once I began asking groups of two to participate in section, I noticed a marked improvement in overall participation rates. Prior to using this strategy, a “good” section was one in which about half of the students spoke in class. After focusing on groups of two, I found that an “average” discussion was one in which all but one or two students spoke up. Overall, I found the majority of students were able to discuss their ideas openly in class and wrote better exams, thus solving the single-most vexing problem I have encountered as a GSI at Berkeley.