The Mechanics of Class Participation

Introduction

Elizabeth A. Lehfeldt, January 2018

Stanislas Petit, "Engineering," n.d. (c. 1905?). Wellcome Images/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 4.0We’ve all been there. Our syllabus specifies that a percentage of the course grade will be based on participation. We’ve presented riveting material or assigned a provocative reading. We show up for class, stand at the front of the room, and begin lobbing questions at the students. And the silence is deafening.

Our intentions are good, but something is missing in the execution. The four pieces offered here offer strategies and ideas for lifting our class discussions out of the doldrums and making them meaningful and efficacious for students.

What unites these essays is the willingness of each author to be self-reflective and to think deliberately about their teaching. Each author has clearly asked tough questions about his or her pedagogy and what works and what doesn’t. Their suggestions acknowledge the complexity of the 21st-century classroom. In the tradition of recent work in pedagogical practice, like James M. Lang’s Small Teaching (2016), several of the enumerated strategies are relatively straightforward adjustments or assignments that don’t require a massive course overhaul to implement. Lendol Calder’s Point Paragraph supplements the effective (and much-beloved) Think/Pair/Share activity with a short assignment that helps students prepare effectively. Susan Rhoades Neel promotes discussion when her students are literally in different locations, connected only by a video feed, by using technology strategically and consistently. With a simple tweak to his attendance sheet, Charles S. Young keeps track of student engagement, while collecting data on his own performance.

The final essay, by David A. Gerber, begins with an admission: simply imparting facts and dates, which he attempted to do for a long time, was a recipe for failure. Instead, he advises, find “big questions,” stemming from issues all humans should grapple with.

The overall result is a useful primer that offers hope for transforming the deafening silence of the lackluster discussion into opportunities for lively student learning.

—Elizabeth A. Lehfeldt, vice president, AHA Teaching Division


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