Pass me an oyster knife, I’m trying to bring a student out of their shell.

Teaching across many cultures can be challenging. Usually, when we talk about cultures we’re talking about country, race, religion and upbringing – at least that’s what it seems to devolve to. It’s easy to point to a group of students from a given culture and say that they have behaviour X. Often, willingness to participate is listed amount these. Now, while certain cultures may have general tendencies, there are many students who just have difficulty in participating. Limiting it to one group is missing the point, in my opinion.

Let me, then, step back from my introductory statements about culture based on country or upbringing and split students into the only two cultures that matter for this post: students who will willingly participate in class and students who won’t.

It can be difficult in a large class to get to all of the students to participate in class-wide discussion or sharing of opinion. Students can choose to make it harder for me to do this in very simple ways. Sitting in a middle row, halfway in, makes it very hard for me to walk up to you and ask you what you’re doing. I prefer a more open class, which is smaller of course, as I can assign some work to the class during the lecture (something small) and then walk around and talk to people. Once I start people talking in a semi-private space, I may be able to get them talking to their neighbour, then their locale, then it’s a much smaller step to get them talking to everyone and participating. My experience in intensive teaching in Singapore shows that me leading people from individual discussion with me up to working in groups is very successful in opening people up. You can see more about that here.

In a large class in a big traditional lecture theatre, as I said, this is harder. However, just because I can’t get to a student doesn’t mean that nobody can. Students almost invariably have a student near them and this where, rather than me using my natural abilities to bring a student out, I can ask students to work in a group. This is far less intimidating because:

  1. Students are generally less scary than lecturers.
  2. Their views are in a far more controlled space and they aren’t having to talk to a very large group.
  3. A small enough group makes it a conversation rather than a presentation.

Of course, there are problems with this as well:

  1. Students may feel more pressure because of the intimacy. This can be helped with prior exposure and training in tutorials or by the demonstration of positive exemplars in the classroom.
  2. Students may still not say anything. In this case, I try to make the discussion have a hand-in artefact associated with it – at some stage, they’ll have to talk to each other.
  3. This does put pressure on students. This is a hard one, as my discipline has group work built in as a fundamental requirement. Students have to work with other people, make presentations and generally get on with people as part of their process with us. So, while I respect that some people don’t want to participate, this will be a problem for them at some stage. I’m trying to provide a safe and comfortable environment for this, so I’m ok with this to an extent.
  4. Students may just talk and not do the work at all!

I don’t mind 3 much, as long as I can regain control. Students talking is better than students sleeping, in some ways, although my goal is still to get everyone working! What is everyone else’s experiences with this?

One Comment on “Pass me an oyster knife, I’m trying to bring a student out of their shell.”

  1. Darlena says:

    My experience with higher education was more of the take-a-seat-in-the-middle-and-listen-to-a-lecture variety, so it’s great that you care enough to make your lessons interactive. It’s also great that you’re trying to encourage communication. I have a student who avoids participation like the plague (and this is in primary school!). He doesn’t want to be out of his shell, though, and I worry about his future because of this.

    Thanks for sharing.



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