Encouraging Classroom Participation

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.

Grading

It may be that you’ve not thought carefully about what message your grading conveys to students beyond “this is what you did or did not do correctly.” One can use grades for a variety of purposes. They can reward effort or punish lack of effort, help you understand how well you convey the material to the classroom, motivate students, help students learn how to identify good work, and much more.

Grading to reward effort

As TAs decide how to assign credit to classwork, they determine what thoughts or explanations will be rewarded. Hopefully, these standards match the classroom goals. Implicitly, when a TA decides to reward some solutions with higher scores than others, he or she is determining what concepts from the course are valued and should be emphasized to students.

After their work is graded, students should be able to understand why their assignments or tests were graded as they were. Grading in a consistent way that can be explained to students when questioned demonstrates that a TA has determined clear goals or standards for the class. In this context, higher grades do reward student progress towards these goals.

Grading as teaching feedback

When an instructor grades students’ work, s/he gets a snapshot of their understanding of the material. If one grades carefully, and keeps notes of common mistakes, it may become increasingly clear which portions of class material should be reviewed or revisited in a new way. Also, looking at trends in student work may give insight into how clearly an assignment was written. If students consistently give appropriate answers, a TA can be confident that that material was conveyed well and that questions were asked clearly.

An experienced TA may recognize trends in their grading, such as “on a typical week, when I grade quizzes, I expect the class average to be between 75 and 80%.” On weeks when the class average is significantly lower or significantly higher, the TA may reconsider the difficulty of the assignment, or the clarity with which things were conveyed. The trends in student assignment scores serve as a litmus test for how successfully the teaching/learning dialogue is being played out in the classroom and for how clearly assignments have been written.

Grading as a motivator

One can view grading as a dialogue between the student and the instructor. In the same way that assignments are students’ response to material presented by the TA, grading is a TA’s response to what the students have presented. Much attention is given to being approachable in the classroom, to encouraging questions, and to helping students develop critical thinking skills during class. In the same way, one can either be approachable and encouraging or strict and discouraging on paper.

Being encouraging does not mean that you give high grades to unsatisfactory work so as not to damage a student’s ego. But it does require time and energy to carefully try to understand a student’s argument and give appropriate feedback. If students realize that you will consider their work carefully and will treat it respectfully, they may be more likely to be careful with how they write up their work. Moreover, if they feel that you treat their work considerately, they may be more willing to consider feedback and enact your suggestions for improvement.

Grading to help students recognize good work

Beyond assessing and encouraging student learning, clear and thoughtful grading can help students develop further intangible skills. In general, it can be very helpful to use feedback to give students a clear understanding of what you expect a good solution to be and help them to pinpoint their weaknesses.

Feedback that is written clearly and concisely presented is more likely to be read than if it is illegible or exceedingly technical. If possible, feedback should be given in a timely manner, when students have time to respond and improve their work. Finally, it should give students specific directions in which to work.

While it is important to help students recognize ways in which they should improve, it is also essential to encourage students with things they do well. When providing both positive and negative feedback, do not attach a positive comment to a negative one just to make the feedback less harsh; instead, make sure to be genuine. As students receive frequent, honest, and personalized comments on their work, they can begin to recognize good or bad work for themselves, and further fine-tune their ability to analyze their own output.

It can be extremely valuable for the TA to consider what they, and their students, can learn from grading. Being careful to grade in a clear, timely, and specific manner helps convey to your students what ideas are considered valuable in your course. Keeping records of your grading trends may provide useful data about your teaching and how well you help students to reach your classroom goals.

Mid-semester Evaluations

While student’s complete end-of-semester evaluations, these can only help you improve your teaching in the future. Early and regular feedback can help you to:

  • Improve a course immediately;
  • Get a class back on track if it isn’t going well;
  • Refine a course that is going well; and
  • Alert you to problems that some of your students may be having.

There are a variety of ways to elicit feedback from your students. TAP offers a sample mid-semester evaluation (pdf) that you can use as is or adapt.

Instead of, or in addition to, a formal mid-semester evaluation, you can ask your students for feedback more regularly. Some instructors like to ask students to write a one-minute memo at the end of each class, in which they quickly answer the questions: “What was the most important idea of today’s class?” and “What questions were you left with?”

You can also hand out slips of paper every few weeks or after major assignments and ask specific questions about the coursework or something more general, like, “Is there anything you want me to know about how the class is going for you?” Customize the questions for your particular class. For instance, if few of your students speak in class, ask them why they don’t participate and what would encourage them to do so. However you choose to ask the questions, allow your students to answer anonymously, to encourage honesty. Take feedback from your students seriously.

Keep in mind that if you ask students for their opinions but then don’t respond to those opinions in any way, they will be understandably frustrated. You may not be able to make the kind of changes your students request, but if that’s the case, you should talk to them about why it’s not possible. Be willing to implement reasonable changes, and don’t be afraid to try new teaching methods in response to student feedback.

TAP’s mid-semester evaluation template (pdf)

Giving Feedback

The smallest amount of sarcasm or any form of derisiveness can intimidate and demoralize students. This, obviously, is not conducive to learning or to building a productive and engaging classroom environment. Providing constructive feedback well is essential for becoming an effective teacher and valued colleague.

Even in cases when instructors aren’t trying to be hard on students, they may overwhelm them by pointing out every single thing that was done wrong or could be improved. To provide helpful feedback, keep in mind that the point is to help students learn and improve, not simply to identify errors and shortcomings.

Whether you’re writing comments on a paper, responding to a student’s contribution to a discussion, or assessing an oral presentation, the following tips may help you critique your students in ways that are useful, rather than punitive.

  • Let students know what they are doing right, as well as what needs improvement
  • Prioritize your comments
  • Help students figure out how to improve their work
  • When giving feedback orally, use a neutral, relaxed, pleasant tone of voice

If you develop your ability to provide feedback constructively, you’ll be a more effective teacher. You’ll also be better able to help your students achieve the instructional goals of your courses.

Mid-Semester Evaluations

Welcome back from spring recess!  In light of reaching the halfway point for the spring term, check out the Mid-Semester blog post from The Chronicle of Higher Education on designing and using mid-semester course evaluations to make informed changes to your spring course based on student feedback and self-evaluation.

Transferring Tutoring Techniques to TAship

Transferring Tutoring Techniques to TAship

Check out the following Faculty Focus blog post about the instructional impact of transferring one-on-one tutoring skills into large lecture hall classroom settings on campus.  The researchers behind this educational project identified nurturance, reflection, and “progressive” thinking tasks among the successful tutoring techniques adaptable to a large college classroom environment.  Which of these instructional skills do you implement in your TA duties?  How successful have they been?  What are some other possible pedagogical approaches from one-on-one student support that can benefit whole-class instruction?

Crowdsourcing the Curriculum

Crowdsourcing the Curriculum

Summer greetings, TAP Blog Followers!

As you prepare for your fall teaching load during the summer season, check out the following essay from Inside HigherEd on Duke University’s interactive Epic Course Design tool used in developing course syllabi based on direct undergraduate student feedback.  What forms and sources of student insight do you incorporate in your syllabus design process?   

In light of course syllabus development, please remember that the TA Project offers a college teaching professional development course entitled Designing Your Own Course (16:186:856), every fall semester at Rutgers University – New Brunswick.  The purpose of the course is to support graduate students in designing a course that they may someday teach.  This course is graded on a satisfactory/unsatisfactory basis and available to students with at least two semesters of college teaching experience (or successfully completed Introduction to College Teaching 186:855).  Designing Your Own Course will be offered on Wednesdays, 4:30p-6:30p on the College Avenue Campus during the Fall 2013 semester.