For those of us who were painfully shy as children – “painful” really is the right word – we recall our teachers telling us that we must participate in class discussions. I still have my high school report cards – the most frequent comment is “needs to participate more.” I remember even being very shy around my parents. When I wanted to tell them something really important, I wrote them a note. Some of us are just more comfortable writing than speaking.
Students’ speaking in class is highly valued and rightly so. Those of us who practice student-centered instruction don’t want to be the only one speaking during the class session. We also don’t want only a handful of our students participating in discussions. Therefore, I appreciated when Mel Silberman, author of several books on active training, conducted a session at the Baruch College Faculty Orientation in August in which he offered some tips on how to increase participation – tips included “pre-discussion” and students’ calling on the next speaker. And I have to say his methods worked; he increased participation in the session. My concern is the narrow focus on speaking without giving students an alternative to expressing themselves. An alternative that may embolden students to speak in class later in the course or down the road in other courses.
When I first started teaching, I was particularly sensitive to students who are not comfortable speaking in class regardless of the reason. I wanted to give students an alternative way of participating. While I was looking at sample syllabi, I came across a syllabus that incorporated another method of participation, a response sheet. I am sorry to say I do not have a record of the source of this way of using response sheets and have only one copy of a syllabus with my directions to students- with a few years away from work as a full-time mom, crashed hard drives and flooded basements – more than a few things have been lost. As I have stated, participation in class discussion is highly valued and often represents a portion of each student’s final grade. So why do we appear to only value oral participation? Could we not have written participation? The response sheet is an alternative avenue of participation for students that has worked well in my classes.
Here is my sample from the syllabus for a course that had weekly class sessions:
To receive 100% on class participation, you will need to speak in class on average about once per week. There will be opportunities to speak every session during lectures and classroom exercises. For students uncomfortable with speaking in class, you can participate by completing a one-page reaction sheet (2 paragraphs at a minimum) for each class session. State what you learned or how the session impacted you as an individual. It could be a reaction, an insight, an opinion, but NOT a summary of the material covered. Reaction sheets are not required but strongly recommended. All students are encouraged to do them, even if you participate regularly in class. The additional credit may help compensate for other areas of weakness such as test taking. Reaction sheets are due the next class session and will not be accepted beyond that. E-mail submissions are accepted and encouraged.
Some guidelines for the response sheet are as follows:
- For the first 2 response sheets received in a semester from a student, I give written feedback and a chance to resubmit for participation credit if the response sheet does not adhere to guidelines or is lacking in substance. I also read one or two samples out loud to the class as models of good response sheets (when I feel strongly that the anonymity of the student can be maintained). On all subsequent response sheets, I indicate whether the participation point has been earned or not and include other comments as I am inspired to.
- You can also keep the practice of reading a few response sheets out loud at the next class session and spend a few minutes discussing them with the class.
- I recall requiring response sheets or in-class participation in discussions for 10 weeks in the semester (for however many class sessions that works out to) in order for students to earn the maximum participation points.
In my experience, less than 25% of students submit response sheets. Some students started with response sheets then abandoned them because they were participating in class discussions. Perhaps they just needed time to feel more comfortable participating.
I really see this as one small way we can provide a more welcoming learning environment. Response sheets enable us to engage quiet students in a way that can lead to their speaking in class later in the course. If not, we still communicate that we value their input, and we too can benefit from the insights students express in writing. Imagine from the quiet student’s perspective of feeling encouraged as opposed to pressured to speak in class. I believe this creates a learning environment in which class participation will actually increase.