Saturday, April 13, 2013

Say What? Nonverbal Modes of Participation

Hey GTC!

In our seventh workshop of the quarter, we featured a presentation by Megan Saucke entitled, “Say What? - Nonverbal Modes of Participation”. The workshop addressed the reasons why students don’t speak in the classroom - many of which are related to issues of privilege. Understanding participation, then, requires understanding the power dynamics in the class.  With this understanding in hand, we as teachers can better see why offering non-verbal modes of participation are important.

First, we discussed why it is important to participate verbally in class. Verbal participation provides good practice articulating concepts; it engages active learning instead of passive learning; and it reinforces a practical life skill. Communicating verbally with someone is something all our students will have to do at some point, especially while on the job. Communicating well in a group, accurately synthesizing information, and creatively presenting work to an audience are all top skills that employers look for in potential employees. Participating in class discussion also provides an element of empowerment and authority that can help students build their personal self-confidence.

All of the items listed above are legitimate benefits from verbal participation in the classroom. But these same items also feed directly into many of the reasons that students don’t speak in class. A few of the reasons we brainstormed were:

            Classroom culture (International Students)
            Processing speed
            Language barrier
            Anxiety over ‘rightness’
            Afraid their questions are dumb
            Privileges masculine modes of communication (gender issues)
            Middle class personalities (see Bordieu), class has a heavy influence
            American cultural norms
            Ability/Alternative ability
            Access - high school/college environments
Access to technology, like computers, etc., also considering availability, like comp labs that close overnight

While some of the issues listed above (like unpreparedness) are problems that cannot be completely fixed by instructors, what Megan emphasized was that classrooms generally privilege more extroverted personalities. Lots of people like to think through their answers before they speak - but some people think while they speak. This puts the first group at a distinct disadvantage, especially in high-enrollment classes where the potential for TAs or professors to get to know their students is limited.

The issues surrounding classroom culture are also some of the most significant and challenging for teachers to address. Some cultures see asking questions in the classroom as disrespectful or embarrassing. Students from these cultures don’t want to disagree with students or the professor out of the fear that they will offend them. Some students come from environments where answering questions is viewed as showing off. Others are used to more direct-recall questions than the debating style that many instructors try to foster.

Regardless of the reason, however, the simple fact is that verbal participation is a difficult obstacle to overcome for many of our students, and can often have a negative impact on their classroom experience.

But the good news is that providing opportunities for non-verbal students to increase their active participation in the classroom often requires little extra effort on the part of the instructor. The list below documents just a few of the many opportunities teachers can provide for their more introverted students:

            End-of-class papers
            Hand raising (“Raise your hand if you agree, if you disagree, etc.”)
            Forum posts
            Chat room
            Google doc collaboration

Encouraging students to take advantage of these simple techniques can have a really profound impact on the student experience.

It’s important to note that although it’s important to consider the backgrounds and experiences of our students, that doesn’t mean we need to completely exclude verbal participation from the classroom. The benefits listed above are still very real, and college is the perfect place for students unfamiliar with verbal participation to develop these skills. In the last portion of the workshop, Megan asked us to brainstorm a list of ways to gradually encourage quieter students to speak up. The ideas we listed were:

            Write answer first
            No one can answer for 30 seconds
            Write on board, then talk about it
            Clarify expectations, or set expectations at the start
Especially in regard to time commitment outside class, how to participate, classroom ground rules, tell them how to play “the college game”
Don’t bait-and-switch
ask for the answer to one question, then ask that same student a follow-up question that they weren’t prepared to answer
            Limit how much a person can dominate a conversation
            Reinforce rules about interrupting others
            Figure out ways to reward or validate correct answers
            Learn names
            Invitations to talk one-on-one (extra credit possibilities)
            Be clear about creating a safe space where all questions are respected
            When quiet folks DO ask questions, be encouraging
“Wow, that’s an awesome question”
                        Give that question the time it deserves

Understanding the factors that influence students’ verbal or non-verbal participation, combined with the simple strategies listed above, can create a classroom that fosters the exact kind of growth and development the college experience is meant to foster.

(Posted by Sarah Messbauer)

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