Notes on Seminar Participation

This post was inspired by a Twitter conversation…

What does participation in the university classroom mean? I know that for me it once meant talking about and discussing a reading and then a bunch of primary sources.  Have my ideas changed?  No, not really. But I’m changing what I think participation means in a wider sense and thinking in more detail about how I create class discussions. I was partially inspired by a paper that I went to before the summer which discussed how we can elicit participation through greater use of digital technologies. I don’t regularly use digital technologies in the classroom but I was left pondering: should large class discussions be the only measure of success?

Here’s what I’ve done over the years to encourage participation:

  1. Slides: Our lecture slides are static. We use them as a top down tool to tell our students what we think and what they should know about a subject. Why not make them more interactive? At the beginning of a module I get students to read the same article. In pairs or threes, they are then invited to write one point from their reading onto a lecture slide, the catch being that their point must not be the same as anyone else’s in the room. We then discuss the reading through the points they’ve made. Later in the module they build my whole lecture slides. I get students to read one article and using one slide per group they are then asked to summarize the article and readings and to turn them into a lecture slide.
  2. Get them to ask you questions: Getting students to ask you questions shows them what you do know but also what you don’t: this can often be a useful starting point for further dialogue. Also, I’ve found that silences in the classroom are generally caused because students don’t understand what you’re asking them to do, so check with them. I encourage students to come up with their own questions which can then be used for discussion in the wider group. It brings variety to their teaching.
  3. Be consistent but flexible: my seminar worksheets always look and feel the same. But it doesn’t mean that our conversations always follow the same format. I also use a reading template worksheet for all my modules. It’s not related to specific readings but asks general critical and analytical questions which students always know the can bring to class. Again, this is not to set a rigid format, but to offer a dependable way in that can lead to any number of different kinds of discussion.
  4. Encourage honesty: the best class discussions emerge when you invite honest reflections. Silences can be caused when students haven’t actually liked what you’ve asked them to read. If the silence persists then I’ve started asking students to tell me if they like or dislike what they’ve read. Likewise I always tell students if I’ve met the author and something mildly interesting about them!
  5. Move around the room: I get my students to work in pairs or small groups. I move around the room and ask them to explain what they’ve discussed or simply listen in. It means that when class discussions happen you can interweave people into the class discussion by saying something along the lines of: ‘An excellent point was raised by this group, could you explain it?’. When full class discussions are happening I don’t sit at a desk or stand in one point. I walk around the room so that points of visual contact shift away from the front of the room.
  6. WalkowitzWrite on the whiteboard: I write on the whiteboard now. I do this partly to get students to see how I process what they are saying but also to encourage them to see the value of what they are saying. It’s also a great way to fill in the silences. I can ask questions, turn around and write some their points down or alternatively I can point to something we’ve already discussed to get them to think more about what we’re asking.
  7. Photograph their contributions: I also photograph what students have done in class and then put it on our VLE. This encourages them to see that class conversations and work matter and are valued even if their group work ends up in the bin or wiped off the whiteboard. FullSizeRender
  8. Sources: I love primary sources. It is after all our craft. But to encourage students to synthesise their points I get them to contextualise their reading by bouncing between primary sources.
  9. Tasks: Be creative with tasks. No one wants the same activity repeated over and over again. Some of my best sessions have occurred when I think about different ways to do things. I love my Twitter class which simply asks students in small groups to read five diary entries and turn them into an Anne Lister Twitter feed. Students in their groups then introduce and explain their Twitter feed to the class and relate it to their readings. In a class of 30 we read a whole year of Anne Lister’s diary by doing this.
  10. Failure is inevitable with some groups: I’ve also just accepted that failure is just inevitable with some groups. No matter what you do or how you do it some groups, some years just don’t/ won’t participate. So don’t chuck out what you do just because it didn’t work first, second or third time. It’s sometimes not you, but them.

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