Teaching circle reflections on student participation

13 November 2017

Each year the LTC supports one or two teaching circles. These teaching circles provide the opportunity for three faculty members to observe each other’s classes, engage in conversation, and learn from each other.

Kristin Bloomer (Religion), Anita Chikkatur (Educational Studies), and Anna Rafferty (Computer Science) participated in a teaching circle last spring. Here Kristin, Anita, and Anna provide a glimpse into their experience, with a particular focus on their conversations and observations about student participation and engagement.

What we did: We each observed two of our colleagues’ classes in the Spring term of 2017. Anita and Kristin each observed two different classes of Anna’s CS 202: “Math of CS”; Anita and Anna each observed Kristin’s RELG 237: “Yoga: Religion, History, Practice” and RELG 362 “Spirit Possession”; and Anna and Kristin each observed Anita’s EDUC 395: “Senior Seminar.”

Student participation and engagement: We all shared concerns about participation in our classes. How do we draw out the quieter students? How do we work to keep the more confident students from taking up all the discussion space? We asked each other to look for signs of student engagement.

We found that we each had different ways of trying to ensure that more of our students participated in class. Anita, for example, had students share by going around the circle to give each student a chance to speak. In Kristin’s 300-level seminar “Spirit Possession,” she had assigned particular chapters of a book to a pair of students who had to prepare a short presentation summarizing them. All of the students would have this assignment, and thus have to speak at some point. Also in this class,  Anita liked how Kristin had assigned regular response papers (two per class) that students read out loud, opening class. Their assignment was to sum up the prior week’s discussion and to bring the class back on the same page for the current week. The assignment also forced those students to take good notes the week before.

Anna tried to ensure that students were learning the equations and formulas she was teaching by giving students a chance to work on a problem in small groups or to partner up for a couple of minutes to talk about a concept. In the class that Anita observed, giving students just even two minutes to talk to each other seemed to help the quieter students speak up in class. Anita also observed that this quick moment led to the first comments by women in the class in this particular session.

Given the findings from a research study that Anita has been conducting looking at under-represented students’ experiences in STEM classes, the technique Anna used in her class seemed to give women, many of whom in the study expressed being less confident in their ability to speak in classes or in study groups, the confidence they needed to contribute to class discussion. The strategy of pairing before sharing in Anna’s class and Kristin’s strategy of having students bring response papers to read were similar in that they gave students some space to think through their ideas before the potentially more stressful situation of sharing their thoughts at a group level.

Kristin and Anna both were impressed with how Anita responded to almost every student comment by affirming what the student had said, reiterating it but also adding to it, expanding on it and connecting it to other conversations or to the reading. One of the goals that Anita sets for her students is to learn how to listen to understand and to make sure that students’ comments build on and add to the conversation. She tries to model this type of listening and responding in her classes.

We also liked that in many of Anita’s classes, four students were assigned response papers, due at noon the day before class. That way Anita could read them in advance and draw them out in conversation — “Hey, I noticed that you had something interesting to say about this topic in your response paper…” — especially if they weren’t someone who usually spoke or if there was a gap in conversation.

Again, this approach demonstrated that the chance for students to prepare something ahead of time can make it easier to speak up in the larger group setting. Anna noticed that in these instances — like those in her own classes where students have had some time to reflect on a question and in which she’s discussed their ideas with them in a pair or small group — calling on a student who hasn’t raised their hand seems less, if at all, intimidating to the students as what we might usually think of as “cold-calling.” Rather than being demanding, the instructor in these cases was starting from the position of publicly recognizing (to the student and to their classmates) that this student had something interesting to contribute, and thus the invitation to share seemed to draw the student in rather than isolating them./p>

Overall, we agreed that the experience of watching one another’s classes and meeting to discuss them was significantly helpful, inspiring, and — for us — community building.