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Engaging in What?

Posted by on January 13, 2014 | General | 4 Comments »

I have been thinking a good deal lately about adding a participation grade to my classes. Part of my desire comes from frustration at generating class discussion in a room full of introverts, as English majors often are. Part of it comes from dealing with first-year students who often struggle to understand how to succeed in college, whether they feel the need to talk all of the time or want to sit in the corner with their laptops and not participate at all. I’ve talked to enough other faculty members, both in and out of my department, to know my frustrations are shared by others.

In fact, many conversations I have with faculty members and much of the literature I read on teaching talks about class participation, how to create more of it and how to evaluate it, should one choose to do so. I remember, in fact, a job candidate who came to Lee years ago, possibly my first or second year here. He taught what we all described as a great class, bringing energy and enthusiasm to a composition class. The one aspect we all commented on was his ability to evoke student participation. In fact, every single student in a class of approximately twenty-five spoke in a fifty minute period, partly due to his calling on them and partly due to the way he structured the assignment and class discussion.

When I think about the way I teach my classes, especially my composition classes, I’m always proud of the fact that every student has spoken at least once, usually much more, by the end of the semester. When I’ve been observed by various people on campus, one of the main areas of discussion is how many students spoke, whether or not a few students dominated the discussion, and what all of that means.

However, the one part of class participation that never gets discussed is a basic assumption that undergirds all of our talking about it: talking in class is inherently beneficial to the student and the class, in general. Granted, we do discuss those students who dominate class conversations, but that seems to be the only way we talk about contributions to class in a negative manner. Perhaps it’s because I’m more of an introvert than most people think or simply because I teach in a department filled with introverts (both faculty and students), but I’m beginning to wonder if our forcing students to talk in class is the best way to evaluate engagement.

For the past few years, I’ve tried to use Moodle forums to generate class discussion. Students’ postings on the forum the night before (or morning of) class forces them to think about ideas I want to bring up in class, but those postings also give the students something to draw from, so they are not having to create an idea from scratch. I thought such an approach would generate more discussion, but it doesn’t seem to be having that effect. Even when I call on students and ask them to explain what they posted, they appear terrified. Sometimes they are even unable to recall what they posted just a few hours before. They know that I am calling on them because I think their ideas are strong, but that does not seem to help them overcome this fear of being put on the spot.

That fear can actually shut down discussion, as students fumble their way through a rehashing of their previous ideas (usually nowhere nearly as articulately as they did in writing), and I have to simply take up the idea and present it again to keep the conversation going. It might simply be easier to have me do it. I can already hear the argument, though, that forcing students to have this conversation teaches them skills they will need later in life, that they need to know how to have these conversations in group settings for whatever they decide to do later in life.

That might be true (and I would tend to agree with it), but looking at our own departments and campus might make us reconsider this idea. I know one person who is approaching fifteen years on the faculty, who has served in a wide variety of settings and who would be seen as a leader both inside and outside of their department, who has spoken once in a faculty meeting in all of those years. We can easily look around at our colleagues and see that there are people who are clearly engaged in the work of this campus who never speak in public settings. I don’t believe their chairs think they need to force them to speak in those settings to prove they are engaged.

I wonder, then, if there might be better ways to evaluate engagement in a course than simply measuring how much someone speaks. We have all had those students who say nothing in class, but who help people in a variety of ways outside of class, whether electronically (watching their discussions on Facebook can be quite fun) or in person (through reading other students’ papers, helping them with projects, leading study sessions, even creating study guides for students who are struggling). We would never say those students are not engaged in learning (and in teaching, actually) simply because they do not speak in class.

I will admit I have no idea how to grade such engagement, though I’m naïve enough to believe that we all generally know when it’s going on. Our campus is still small enough that we hear a good deal within our major (and social media can help here, as well), that we know who the students are who are engaging with the material and other students in ways that are not visible in the classroom setting.

If nothing else, I want to have this conversation with students, to talk with them about what I mean when I say that I want them to participate in class. And I want to try to grade it this semester and see how that goes. I know I will err on the side of generosity, since I’m wary of my ability to truly measure it, but I’m hoping that having the conversation and giving them credit for being truly plugged in to the course will help the classroom environment. I don’t want it to be one more grade students fulfill out of duty or one more way I exercise my power over them. I don’t know if this will work, but I believe it is worth trying.

  1. As an introvert myself, I appreciate this willingness to explore ways of being engaged beyond just talking. The best student I have had in recent years–a student who has yet to miss a point on any evaluation–has not yet said her first word in class. She has never been absent; she has never missed an assignment; she participates in group work, but she has not said a single syllable in two semesters. I think extraverts invented the idea that you are engaged if you are talking. I have been in many many meetings in which extraverts talked their heads off without furthring the dialogue one iota. The same is true in the classroom. I love the book THE POWER OF QUIET IN A WORLD THAT CAN’T STOP TALKING by Susan Cain, and I recommend it to anyone dealing with the meaning of engagement.

  2. Andrew Lee says:

    Thanks for posting your thoughts on this important issue, Kevin. After reading your remarks, I’m going to try to be more intentional as I explain to the students at the beginning of the semester my devious scheme to coax some class discussion from the wallflowers while occasionally asking the dominant talkers to “heel” from time to time in order to create a more communal discussion. I have no idea if it will make a difference or not to inform them early on about my “plan” but we’ll see.

  3. I really appreciate this place to read of my colleagues ideas, and the opportunity to interact in such a manner. Though it has been part time, I have taught for over 20 years and picked up others’ preconceived idea(s) that the student that is not speaking is not engaged. Kevin, the title of your posting says it all for me. “Engaged in what?” I turned the corner on this thinking about being “engaged” during my PhD program. I found just what Carolyn has stated, many people will talk and talk and talk and seemingly never further the conversation. I would be in classes and see the same thing occurring and I felt that if I were to say something, it may move them (my classmates) on and they didn’t seem to want that. I would ultimately find myself reading articles on the subject the course was “supposed” to cover since I was already 2 hours from home and committed to being on the campus for hours. The end result was that I learned the content even if it was not addressed in the classroom environment.

    Because of that experience and the types of articles in educational studies I read, my educational philosophy has taken quite a turn. I am more concerned now that my students are engaged with the content covered in my courses and that they hunger to be engaged even more. I began measuring class participation based on in-class activities since I know that there are some that simply are not going to speak up when there is an in-class conversation occurring. In agreement with the thought you have shared, Kevin, I would dare say that are many other ways of measuring than keeping count of how often a given student speaks in class.

    I look forward to hearing how you felt your new efforts were received and measured.

  4. Kevin Brown says:

    For those of you who are curious, here is what I wrote for my syllabus and what I’ll emphasize in class:
    “Class participation” is often listed under grading sections of syllabi, and that participation is usually
    interpreted (by students and faculty) to mean speaking in class. I like the term “engagement” better, as both students and faculty can and should be engaged in class even when they are not
    speaking. In practice, then, engagement is made up of at least three parts. First, one has to be in class in order to be engaged in the discussions taking place there. Second, one must have prepared for class well, whether that is through assigned reading, writing, or simply thinking about ideas that will be discussed that day. This preparation allows one to know what the discussion is truly about and is different from passively taking notes when one is not prepared. Last, engagement does involve speaking, but it is not measured by the amount of talking one does, but by the quality of those contributions. Knowing when and how often to speak to help deepen the discussion is the mark of an engaged student.

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