When students have the opportunity to react to material during class time, the instructor gets immediate feedback on how material is being received. Also, from the students’ perspective, the oft-quoted proverb holds true: “Tell me, I’ll forget. Show me, I’ll remember. Involve me, I’ll understand.”
But how can a TA encourage students to participate? Listed below are several suggestions that experienced instructors have used successfully.
Bring a positive attitude
Realize that your attitude can make a huge difference in how students respond to you. Invite questions and genuinely listen when students participate. Make a point to smile at your students. If students perceive you to be an inviting instructor they will be more at ease in responding.
Learn students’ names
Use students’ names when talking to them or calling on them in class. In large courses this may be more easily said than done. However, when students notice that an instructor knows who they are, they feel valued. A student who feels valued will feel more comfortable in the classroom and be more likely to actively participate.
Take a poll
An easy way to test student understanding and intuition without putting one student “on the spot” is to take a poll. Ask a question and offer several possible answers. Have students answer by raising their hands. A student who observes that others agree with them may be less shy about speaking up to defend their answer. This is also a fast and easy way to check that students understand the material.
Red light, green light
In a large section, it may be difficult to include many activities or detailed discussions that require every student to participate, but this does not mean that class time cannot be an engaging experience. At the beginning of the term, give each student red, yellow, and green note cards. Students are responsible to bring the note cards back to each class.
During the lecture, if students understand what is going on, they should place the green card on the front of their desk. If they somewhat follow the material, but have many questions, they should use the yellow card. If students are completely lost, they should place the red card on their desk. This activity puts more responsibility in the hands of the class to give accurate assessment of how well they follow the material being discussed. It is also an unobtrusive way to solicit instant feedback.
Give an “attendance quiz”
Consider giving a quiz at the end of lecture that does not count towards the student grade. Ask only one or two short questions and allow students to use their notes. Emphasize that the quiz will not affect their grade other than to show that they were present. This will give feedback on how well students processed the information gleaned from class, and will encourage them to actively pay attention.
Have students teach each other
As time allows, break students into smaller groups and have them work on an exercise together. When students work in groups, stronger students may learn by explaining concepts to weaker students, and their knowledge will be solidified. Weaker students may be more comfortable asking questions of their peers than of the instructor. Mix up the groups with each discussion.
Have students grade each other
For some assignments, allow students to grade their own work, or exchange assignments and grade a peer’s work. Seeing why answers are right or wrong while the topic is fresh in students’ minds helps to reinforce course material. Peer grading also encourages students to be alert and engaged during discussion so that they grade correctly. This tactic has the added advantage that it saves you grading time; however, you may also choose to spot check students’ grading.
Use discussion questions creatively
Shyer students may feel self-conscious during class discussion, but there are several ways to circumvent this nervousness. Consider handing out discussion questions in advance so that students have the chance to gather their thoughts before coming to class. Alternately, ask students to submit possible discussion questions a day or two in advance. Then, class can be tailored to student interest and needs.
Remember that not every method will be successful in every classroom
Each new group of students will have techniques that work better for their unique dynamic. However, adding variety to the classroom dynamic will help keep students on their toes and more likely to be active participants in the class.
As you set the tone for your students this semester, remember, finding new ways to involve your students in class will take more planning. The payoff of an interactive and engaging learning atmosphere, however, is well worth the effort.