Ahead of Encouraging student contributions – the workshop on the 8th of November, Dr Ellis Saxey, Academic Developer from the Teaching and Learning Centre, considers the issues students can encounter as they consider contributing in class. We’re always interested to hear about your experiences in the comments section below.
Student a: ‘Fear of being wrong and seeming stupid, not having any opinion or view of the subject being discussed or hesitation & then someone else says it.’
These comments are something of a paradox: a student talking about their reluctance to talk. They’re the results of a straw poll (conducted in the LSE LIFE space) which asked students to volunteer reasons why they had, or hadn’t, spoken in a class or seminar.
Students said they verbally contributed less when they lacked confidence in their knowledge, and when they feared scrutiny from the tutor.
Student b: ‘I was scared my response would get picked apart & would not be thorough enough.’
Student c: ‘I feel like I don’t have enough knowledge on the topic. Or, I have not thought critically about the issue discussed.’
Not fully grasping the terminology of the discipline also held them back.
Student d: ‘Not knowing the jargon/vernacular of that particular discipline.’
Student e: ‘Language. Sometimes I don’t know if I’ll find the words to explain, specially if the teacher asks me to elaborate more.’
Sometimes they felt held back by their spoken English, particularly in a fast-moving debate. However, sometimes they contributed explicitly in order to practice the language.
Student f: ‘Too slow at formulating the question/answer in English.’
Student g: ‘Want to show up and practice my English.’
Some students posed questions to get clarification, or to challenge the assumptions of the academic:
Student h: ‘Wanting to challenge professor on underlying assumptions.’
Student i: ‘When I do not understand the professor’s explanation.’
And particularly when they felt they had something to contribute, students found their voice.
Student j: ‘I have strong opinion on the topic. I have interesting insight information or argument to contribute to the discussion. I am knowledgeable about the topic.’
Student contributions – findings from the research
LSE students are not alone in identifying these factors as hindering, or supporting, their contributions. Research has investigated psychological factors, including fear of peer and tutor judgement; Fassinger’s study (1995) found that low student confidence reduced contributions. Other studies have sought to correlate student participation with age (older students being more likely to contribute) and with gender of tutor or student (with mixed results). A common finding is that larger classes may be detrimental, as they increase ‘performance anxiety’ because of the greater ‘audience’, and they allow students to hide in the crowd. This suggests that LSE’s fixed class size may be promoting more student contributions.
An article by Weaver and Qi is particularly useful. It offers an overview of existing research, but also freshly surveys over 1500 students to test hypotheses generated from previous studies. Some of Weaver and Qi’s findings do support these hypotheses. For example, older students they surveyed reported they were more likely to ‘always’ contribute. In addition, they confirmed Fassinger’s argument that student confidence greatly affected participation. Confidence, they believe, is ‘the energy that animates social organization, but [which] is also simultaneously produced by it’; a positive discussion environment requires, but also perpetuates, confidence in the participants.
Waver and Qi’s methodology not only checks the impact of many factors on participation (e.g. does increased confidence lead to more participation?) but also between factors (e.g. does student preparation affect confidence?). Their most interesting findings, for me, were in these cross-related areas. For instance, student confidence mediated the effects of most of the other factors they surveyed. In one fascinating finding, a lack of preparation didn’t directly hold students back from contributing, but it did increase students’ fear of being judged by their peers and their professors, which in turn reduced their participation.
Authoritative tutors, silent students?
Most interestingly of all, the more the teacher was viewed as an ‘authority of knowledge’, the more likely the students were to fear teacher criticism, and the criticism of other students. Student confidence was lower in such situations, and students were less likely to contribute. When the teacher wasn’t viewed as an absolute authority, their criticism was felt as far less of an obstacle to students participating. This seems a particular area of interest for LSE, where the expertise of our academics is a key attraction for our students. Is there a way to be authoritative without reducing student participation? Can students benefit from academics’ knowledge, but not feel scrutinised when they speak? In response to this finding, Weaver and Qi advocate for classrooms to be ‘learning communities’, including more group work, more supportive peer communication, and positioning the teacher in a more supervisory role. Ideally, this supportive community of learners would help to reduce fear of peer disapproval, which also has a chilling effect on class contribution.
Encouraging student contributions- the workshop
ON Tuesday 8th November, the workshop will explore areas such as: How can you frame questions so students understand? Can you prevent a small number of students from dominating discussion? Does student contribution always need to involve speaking? Follow the link above to book a place.