Securing student participation in class

Over a cup of coffee with me the other day, three academics complained that, in their view, student participation in lectures and tutorials is not what it used to be. Most students, they felt, preferred silent anonymity in class and did not engage. Even when specifically prompted they tended to keep comments to a minimum. This had made lectures much less interactive and had made successful tutorials all but impossible.

One theory suggested by one of my friends was that students had not become less able to participate, but rather that their forum of debate was no longer in the physical world, but was now more or less entirely online. On social networking sites, or on the web, or sometimes in emails students could be vocal, inquisitive, interactive and intellectually assertive. But put them in a classroom and their familiar props were gone, and with them their sense of self-confidence and their taste for inquiry.

Another yet more pessimistic view by one of the other academics was that, finally, the learn-by-rote-and-don’t-ask-questions culture of secondary education had worked its way through the next level and was rendering students unable to be analytical or critical.

Of course whatever the reasons might be, if this is indeed a trend it is serious for society. Higher education is all about developing intellectual creativity and independent inquiry. Even where students are heavily focused on a professional trajectory, they still need to develop these skills. It will be important for universities to engage with this phenomenon and to consider how it can be tackled, so that today’s students will be tomorrow’s inventors, entrepreneurs and social and cultural innovators. The real mission of higher education must not be lost.

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16 Comments on “Securing student participation in class”

  1. Vincent Says:

    I’m sorry but that’s rubbish. When I was a UCG tutorials were a painful experience with about ten people in the session and ONLY the mature students asking/discussing anything with the tutor. It had nothing to do with the internet in any form that the rest were silent.
    And for what it’s worth, might it not be an error in concept on your part in the way you’ve designed the room and it’s contents. How can you expect people that have experience of a classroom and their function within such a space to act contrary to years of training.
    If you really want some reaction on a consistent basis stack the tables to one side or better remove them and install a coffee maker of some sort. Then have the seating arranged in a circle of sorts.
    Oh, and tell the idiot tutor not to sit with her/his back to the window. Anyways, a bit of active design might work wonders.

    • Al Says:

      Great stuff there…..

    • Jilly Says:

      Vincent, in my 10 years of teaching, I’ve moved more furniture than Pickfords in my efforts to create good seminar spaces (and as for having my back to a window, chance would be a fine thing, given how many seminar rooms don’t have windows). It doesn’t appear to make much difference, and neither does coffee, something else I’ve always encouraged students to bring to class (and always leading by example!).

      What seems to make a difference is the group dynamics of each set of students. Some groups rapidly develop a culture of participation and engagement, and some appear to be close relatives of the Easter Island statues. This is largely determined by the particular combination of individuals in the group, the ways in which they relate to each other, and their self-created dynamics over time. There are only minor influences upon this which the academic leading the discussion can have – given that the entire point of seminars is their participatory, collective form. It is often very clear that the students (inevitably, when you think about it) bring their wider social dynamics as a group into the seminar room. One or two very strong personalities often dominate the group culture – for good or ill with regards to seminar work. In one especially bad case, some colleagues and I even gerry-mandered seminar compositions in an attempt to alter this dynamic, but that was with a group of 2nd years, and it seemed as if the damage had been done, and a culture of non-participation had already become too strong for us. In other instances, I’ve known groups of new 1st years just ‘gel’ and have great seminars from their very first week in college.

      The point here is that by definition seminars are student-led – and that does include the painful silence variety of seminars. As with much of the rest of university study, students have to take responsibility for their own learning. If we’re doing that for them then the whole project has already failed.

      • Vincent Says:

        The tutorial is drawn from the tradition of being invited to the rooms of some Fellow of the college. Not his office nor some generic classroom but his intimate space. This creates a debt. It’s a bit like you being invited to a dinner party and when having been fed you are expected to provide part of the entertainment. And given that most academics are very poor in the performing arts and best kept well away from anything mechanical that makes noise. They deliver for their supper by arguing well.
        Basically you are Agathon. And what you need to do, like a good host is meet them at the door, sate their thirst and hunger and put them at their ease. While spotting the shy and drawing them in.
        Meeting at the door means you get there before them. While wine and nibbles might be a bridge to far for the puritan managements of most Universities. One of those expressed coffee flasks thingys and a roll of Chocky Bickies would go a long ways to the same place.
        You just need to create a situation where there is debt, then you control it. Then you can direct it in whichever direction you believe best causes the concept you are imparting to stick.

        • Jilly Says:

          Vincent, that principle may well have worked in the days of very (very!) small student numbers, but has been stretched beyond breaking point by mass university education. These days I’m more like an overworked GP, yelling ‘next!’ as each patient leaves the surgery. I would also dispute your assertion that most academics can’t perform – or use technology. I’m actually a very good performer, as are most of my colleagues.

          And without a hint of flippancy, I’d point out that no Irish university could afford to supply coffee and biscuits to each of its seminars; many departments can’t really afford their phone bills these days. My department used to supply a couple of hundred euro towards a Christmas party for the staff and students each year – we’ve had to stop that in the last 12 months, as we literally do not have a couple of hundred euro to spare, and that’s on an annual, not weekly basis.

  2. irishminx Says:

    Having graduated last November from university, it was my experience that our lecturer’s did encourage debate. However, my class mates were often annoyed with me, for being engaging during the lectures and voiced their objections strongly! That didn’t prevent me from being vocal. I imagine thought had I been younger, (as our class were mature students), I may have felt intimidated by their objections & may have kept my mouth closed!

    One of my fellow students, who had different lecturer’s to me, said that they did not encourage debate within class!

    Debate is essential, because I certainly gained from it and eventually my class mates admitted they did too.

    Maybe younger people, not all, have lost their gift to debate?!? I know when I was at school, the best class’es were those where there was a debate & discussion on the topic.

    I don’t think any one factor is to blame, whether that be the internet/TV/learning by rote/lack of discussion within the home & indeed peer pressure, maybe it’s a combination of all these factors?!?

    Whatever the reasons, discussion & debate are a vital learning tool, not just in university, in living life too!

    Great blog Ferdinand, thanks.

  3. Helen Finch Says:

    I used to think similarly. Then I realised that I was getting older, while the average student was not. I think it is less likely that students are getting less communicative, and more likely that as we educators get older, we are less skilled at communicating with new generations of young people with their own distinct culture and experiences. Morever, as we get older, we become increasingly intimidating figures for them. Also, I share Vincent’s memories; my UG seminars were frequently lively, but also often tongue-tied.

  4. anna notaro Says:

    I tend to agree with Jilly as far as a particular group dynamic is concerned when it comes to class participation, however I would be keen to stress another dynamic which is mentioned in the post, i.e. the online one, familiar to most students. The key question is not how to make sure that our lecture rooms are full with students but how to integrate the two dimensions, the physical and virtual in a fulfilling learning experience. If we think about it, the practice of ‘broadcasting knowledge’ is nothing new, The Open University started in England in 1971 (now the UK largest university with 250.000 students), the following INFOGRAPHIC: ‘How The Internet Is Revolutionazing education’ http://bit.ly/m03JS2 traces the steps of such a process from when the term e-learning was coined in 1999 to 2004 when a young student called Kahn starts recording instructional YouTube videos to help his cousin with maths – now he is founder of the Kahn Academy, a non-profit, free online educational organization.
    What has happened in the meantime is a cultural shift of seismic proportions, right now it’s like being in the eye of the storm everything seems quite and yet around us all is changing fast. The change is affecting the cornestones of the way in which knowledge has been produced and disseminated. Learning no longer means sitting passively in a lecture hall or on in front of a television or in a library and waiting to receive the “authoritative” version of what the teacher/expert think is up as if it were a Communion wafer. The internet has opened infinite learning paths, the immediate consequence might be, as Caron Dann has argued in THE last week, that the Digital is killing the lecturing stars http://tinyurl.com/66u47re (the main argument being that university lecturers are so good at incorporating new media into their work that we may do themselves out of a job) however I strongly disagree with that, the raison d’être of our job won’t dissapear, only the ways in which we are performing it. Our job will be to ‘lead the conversation’, to marshal the wisdom of the network, to guide students to distill meaning out of information, assembling new ways of looking at things from a huge variety of elements rathen than being like judges whose opinions are sacred. In so doing learning will really become a truly *collaborative* process, and a new vision of what might come to be meant by “knowledge” will come about, similar to what Marshall McLuhan called “a galaxy for insight.” Are we ready to look up at the stars?

  5. hamlynart Says:

    I’m not so sure that generalisations like “student participation in lectures and tutorials is not what it used to be” really help us capture the true nature of such situations. Is it actually the case that student participation has changed or is this just a perception (usually from academics who have lost touch with the students they teach In my experience) upon which ‘enhancements’ are instituted in order to address what turns out to be a phantom problem? Surely the point is not to treat students like a homogenous mass but to respond to each situation dynamically with exactly that “intellectual creativity” and “innovative entrepreneurship” that you say that we should be seeking to engender. The tendency to look for blanket solutions is to complex circumstances is the real problem, not lack of engagement. As Gandhi famously said: “Be the change you want to see.”

  6. Niall Says:

    In my experience mature students participate much more in class discussion than younger students. Maybe it’s just a question of confidence. Nobody likes to be ‘put on the spot’. North American students tend to participate more than Irish or British students – maybe something to do with differing secondary education experience.

    A lot depends on group size. With smaller groups all students can have a specific role/task which obliges them to contribute, if only a little. Larger classes can be broken into smaller groups. Knowing students by name is a big help. Do they know each other? With modularisation, they may not.

    I’m not convinced that the web or social media have much to do with the problem. Try welcoming discussion via Twitter or text message. It’s another task for the lecturer to manage but might be worth the experiment

  7. cormaccormac Says:

    I agree with Jilly on the vagaries of class dynamics, but Niall’s point is good – my experience in the US is that students are much more particpative, yet also a lot more wired in. I suspect public speaking confidence plays a role – Americans have ‘show and tell’ in kindergarten and they never recover!

  8. Dan Says:

    Well I agree with everybody, so am obviously confused…

    But it is true: North American students who come on Study Abroad programs, although they might not be academically better, ‘perform’ at a much higher level in a small-group teaching context. If you ask them why, they just say that’s the way it is in their home colleges and for example, they often engage in peer review of fellow students’ work – which raises everybody’s game!

    But it can be mysterious, a class can create their own personality, subject to hidden forces, and you will know from Level 2 that they will never be “lively” all the way to graduation.

  9. Perry Share Says:

    Some basic tips for more communicative small group teaching:

    1) engage students in communicating about something that has meaning for them

    2) break into smaller subgroups and then reconvene in a plenary – ie “buzz groups”

    3) leave the room for 5 minutes on some pretext.

    Silence/lack of participation will be much less of a problem

  10. Al Says:

    Students can keep their head down, hand in assignments and attend the exams and get on grand.

    The system validates their attitude, as we are locked into the exam mentality, where any mutation in the system is frowned upon for concerns of quality.
    In order to change this we have to be willing to accept less surety of quality in exchange for promoting ‘experiences’ that the student can learn from.

    But we cant talk about that because property prices will have a soft landing, no: the banks are fully capitalised; wait: we have the finest education system in the world.
    Yes, we punch above our weight!


  11. Because I run all my tutorials online, I’m rarely in a classroom. Last year I covered some first year tutorials for a colleague and I noticed a different problem: far from being silent, students talked constantly. It’s just that they were mostly talking to each other. When someone asked me a question and I replied, all the others started talking to the person next to them. I stopped the class and asked them about this, and whether they didn’t find it distracting. Their responses were really thought-provoking. 18 year olds live in a noisy world of brief messages. They’re used to filtering streams of communication. And they’re not offended by the process of not listening to each other — they don’t particularly expect attention, let alone undivided attention. I think they find it slightly both creepy and terrifying, to be honest. They’re used to chatting in a crowded social space.

    So perhaps people used to keeping multiple simultaneous communication windows open need more support than we realise to develop active listening (rather than tuning-out) skills. They need much more help with concentration than we think. So maybe we need to figure out how to change the way we view the traditional tutorial so that we make clearer to students why we’re committed to developing the skills of preparing, listening and engaging that we now can’t take for granted.

    Obviously, you know, coffee, chocolates, sherry, and windows are all also good, not to mention enough chairs.


  12. This is a BIG issue for me at uni! I spent my undergraduate years struggling with the question of participation and wondering why my classmates were so impolite that they wouldn’t answer a question when it was asked. One lecturer, in an act of desperation, used to ask the most basic questions, and when no-one still answered, I realized that the problem wasn’t one of comprehension. I would end up holding an interesting conversation with the teacher while 24 pairs of eyes alternately watched us and the clock.

    The problem lies in the practices of secondary education; young people are NOT taught how to think, and in most cases are not encouraged to speak or discuss. Chalk-and-talk is the way to go; the reason is that the teachers themselves have no interest in discussion and debate and indeed, often do not know how to think themselves. The result is a generation of underdeveloped, opinion-less young people, who have no idea how to react in a seminar when faced with questions that require vocal, spur-of-the-moment answers. I don’t think social networking has much to do with it; more likely it is the fear of simply being labelled as ‘nerd’,or ‘geek’, that silences them so effectively.

    Irish students unfortunately do not cast off the herd mentality when they enter hallowed university halls. I think a compulsory seminar entitled ‘Learning to Think’ for the first week of first year could possibly work wonders.


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