Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
The posting below looks at how to increase seminar participation among all students. It is by Mano Singham, Case Western Reserve University, and is number 22 in a series of selected excerpts from the National Teaching and Learning Forum newsletter reproduced here as part of our "Shared Mission Partnership." NT&LF has a wealth of information on all aspects of teaching and learning. If you are not already a subscriber, you can check it out at [http://www.ntlf.com/] The on-line edition of the Forum--like the printed version - offers subscribers insight from colleagues eager to share new ways of helping students reach the highest levels of learning. National Teaching and Learning Forum Newsletter, Volume 13, Number 2, ? Copyright 1996-2004. Published by James Rhem & Associates, Inc. (ISSN 1057-2880) All rights reserved worldwide. Reprinted with permission.
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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
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TALKERS AND LISTENERS
When running seminar or discussion classes for undergraduates, the major issue instructors face is unbalanced participation, with some students dominating the discussion while others remain silent. While there are ways to force more widespread participation (such as calling upon people, basing grades on participation, using tokens, allowing people to speak only a limited number of times, etc.), all these techniques involve coercion to a greater or lesser degree. They run counter to the basic idea of the seminar/discussion as a continuing conversation, similar to the ones that one might have with friends and neighbors. One cannot imagine using coercion there.
Since my own teaching philosophy has evolved to the point where I believe that the best learning occurs under conditions that aren't coercive, I tried a promising experiment this semester that focused on improving discussion without coercion. The course was on the "Evolution of Scientific Ideas." The class was comprised of 17 sophomore students. At the beginning of the very first meeting, after brief introductions all around, I spoke for a few minutes, saying that the class would function best if everyone participated in the discussions. Of course, all instructors say this, and it usually has little effect.
But then I said that in semi-formal groups such as this, each one of us had, over time, developed a preferred, or at least customary, role. We saw ourselves as either "talkers" (people who volunteered to speak and did so frequently) or "listeners" (people who preferred to stay silent and rarely, if ever, joined in the discussion unasked). I asked each person to self-identify, with me beginning and identifying myself as a talker. (This should be no surprise. McKeachie reports that the most common cause of unbalanced discussion is the instructor who typically talks about 70-80% of the time!)
Which Are You?
Six students identified themselves as talkers, while eleven said they were listeners. I then said that both talking and listening were essential skills and that we needed to develop both aspects of our personalities. I then asked all the talkers to sit together in one part of the room, the listeners to group in another part, and to discuss amongst themselves the following questions: What made me become a talker (listener)? How can I develop my listening (talking) skills? How can I help listeners (talkers) talk (listen) more?
The two groups spent about 20 minutes discussing these questions. The talkers group (which I naturally joined), although half the size of the listeners, made much more noise, talking and laughing as they discussed, with people jumping in with ideas and comments. The listeners group was much quieter, with only one person speaking at a time, but even there the conversation never died down. The two groups then reported to each other at the end of the time period.
The listeners said they listened and did not talk much because they felt that their ideas must already be obvious to everyone; that there was usually no pause in the discussion for them to insert their ideas; they liked to take in information; they took time to formulate their ideas and by the time that happened the discussion had moved on to something else; they did not feel themselves to be experts and did not want to waste other people's time with their unformed or poorly articulated views. To overcome these feelings, they felt that they should force themselves to talk more.
On the other hand, the talkers said that they felt compelled to share whatever ideas they had; that they thought their ideas were good; felt compelled to correct ideas they believed were wrong; were uncomfortable with silence and felt obligated to break it; and sometimes felt they would explode if they kept silent. They also said that this behavior had developed over years as they realized that they liked the attention talkers received, they were noticed in class by teachers and hence did better, and were often expected by teachers to respond to questions. To overcome this, they felt they should force themselves to listen.
An important realization by the listeners was that the talkers did not need to think their ideas had to be very original or carefully phrased before they expressed them. Talkers said they often thought things through while they talked, rather than before. Listeners realized that their own ideas were not inferior to those of the talkers. In their private journals to me for that first week, students said they were totally surprised by the exercise, but that they enjoyed it because they had never before thought carefully about why they adopted their particular roles.
The whole class felt that we should try and create the conditions under which everyone got to participate. It was agreed that this responsibility should be shared and that the instructor should not have to play the role of arbitrator or be the focal point of the discussion. The class as a whole would try to develop good seminaring skills as we went along, monitoring the discussions so that they were not dominated by a few people.
I was apprehensive as to how this early discussion would influence subsequent classes. The next few classes were not promising, with low levels of participation and discussion. But what I then learned from their journals was that a few of the talkers (who are the kinds of students who keep discussions going) had decided to take a vow of complete silence in order not to dominate the discussions and to allow space for the listeners! They said they felt discouraged that the listeners had not immediately picked up the slack. I replied that they had to be patient, and that it is much harder for a listener to talk than for a talker to decide to listen. I suggested that they strive for a balance between domination and silence.
The discussions got much better as the semester progressed, with the distinction between the talkers and listeners getting blurred but not eliminated. Almost all the listeners seemed to feel much more at ease in speaking and one or two of them even started talking to such an extent that they were accused (in good humor) of having "crossed over" to the talkers.
In a review discussion at the end of the semester, students said that this initial discussion had had a major impact on how they viewed their role in the seminar. It had made them more self-reflective and conscious of how their actions influenced that of others. They wished that it would be done in other classes as well.
Associate Director, UCITE
University Center for Innovation in Teaching and Education
Case Western Reserve University
Cleveland, OH 44106-7025