“Class participation” and the art of conversation

For way over a decade I’ve invented, borrowed, and revised many ways to provoke, encourage, and assess “class participation.” But I hadn’t spent a lot of time reflecting on what “class participation” really meant to me or why I valued it, which made the ways I had implemented and assessed it a little foggy. Students, I figured, needed to “participate,” and that meant “talking,” and my syllabus usually counted “participation” as 20% of the overall course grade.

Recently—about two years ago– I started thinking a bit more deeply about “class participation” and it became clear that all of my assumptions about it were about me: I wanted to make sure students were paying attention. I wanted to break up the monotony of my own voice. I wanted to make it look like I was interested in what students had to say because I had been groomed in an unexamined pedagogy where “lecture is bad; participation is good.”

The me-centered ways I had been encouraging and assessing class participation actually seemed to detract from student’s learning experiences as students got frustrated with peers who dominated or redirected conversation, or otherwise “wasted our time.”

But “speaking and listening” are essential skills for students to learn and value. Some conversations are more interesting, meaningful and useful than others; students should be taught how to have more of these kinds of conversations.

So, for the past couple of years I’ve been experimenting: What would it look like if class participation were actually for the students? What if I could tap into an intrinsic motivation to encourage them to learn through discussion with one another, rather than rewarding and punishing “students talking” with grades?

To develop ways that class participation could be really useful to students, 1) I had to ask them what would actually be useful 2) They needed a vocabulary for disposition, inquiry, and conversation so they could consider what would be useful 3) We had to practice conversation and discussion the way we practice writing. A colleague gave me a fabulous handout on running a Socratic Seminar, complete with a list of characteristics of an “Effective Seminar Participant,” posted here, that has gradually and totally transformed my experiences with class discussion and “participation.”

In partners, small groups, and as a class we talk about which of these characteristics we possess, which we would like to work on, and which help us learn. We become explicit about “referring to each other by name,” “referring to the text,” “asking follow-up or clarifying questions,” and even “drawing quieter students into conversation.”

(A recent class discussion about that last item was really interesting. Chatty students said they didn’t want to “draw quieter students into the conversation” because they didn’t want to put people on the spot. When I then asked students who identified as “quieter” if they’d actually like to be drawn into the conversation, every single student raised their hand. Just by taking two minutes to clear the air about our concerns and preferences, we overcame a huge hurdle in ensuring all voices are heard!)

Students need an experience of a useful and interesting class discussion in order to believe in the merits of it. And I need to trust that learning—inquiry, discovery– happens through conversation.

As for assessment: Students engage in anonymous peer evaluation of class discussion and write “validations” (small, surprise notes in which you thank someone for a specific way they’ve enhanced your learning experience) throughout the semester. Since implementing these techniques, I’ve witnessed more and more students “participating,” and I’ve witnessed the process of learning through participation more clearly.

Of course, things are awkward for a bit in the beginning of the semester as we are hyper-aware of how we’re having a conversation. There’s a lot of nervous laughter. But at least we’re being explicit about what we’re doing. We practice and we push through. Our conversations get better. We learn more and better. We become a learning community.

I don’t see or hear everything that happens in small or large group discussion and so, as Maryellen Weimer recently blogged, often a teacher might simply remember the loudest or most frequent speakers when it comes time to administer a “class participation” grade at the end of the semester. By reading what students find valuable about their peers, my own evaluation of “class participation” is now more clearly linked to that which is actually helping students learn. Students acknowledge those who have been prepared, useful, interesting, respectful, and they use specific examples to back up those claims. With the data I collect over the semester, I have a pretty full picture of a spectrum of grades to administer. And students have been getting anonymous feedback all semester, so they’re not surprised by 20% of their grade at the end of the term.

(One semester, I included “negative” peer feedback in these evaluations, and that didn’t work very well. Now, instead, our motto is “if you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.” The silence about a person’s contribution to learning says enough).

And so, with a little reflection, my question changed from “How can I get students to talk?” to “How can I get students to learn?” By flipping the classroom—delivering content online rather than in class—we can use class-time to develop the essential human skill—and art– of conversation. And that’s been pretty awesome.