Back in the Saddle: Getting Students Talking.

I gave my first “non-intensive mode” lecture in weeks on Monday and it was a blast. I’ve already mentioned that it was on Ethics and I do enjoy teaching that. I regularly throw to the class with “Hey, what do you think about this – 1 minute, give me an answer, talk to your neighbour. Go!” and then wander about. While I’m wandering, I’m not worried about the students who are all talking – that’s what I want – I’m looking for the students who are sitting by themselves.

Generally, where possible, I’ll try and nudge the geographically isolated students together – you know, when one is sitting in row 3, then there’s a huge gap and there’s another in row 7 – but I try to do this before the lecture gets going. Once you’ve got all of our gear out, you don’t want to move and, if you do, you drop stuff and – well, it’s a mess.

Some people, of course, just don’t want to play. They won’t sit with other people, they won’t talk, they won’t interact unless I address them directly and then stand and wait for them to answer. Now this has to be done very carefully because you don’t want to get into a staring match or an intimidation play with a student, so it has to stay light but it has to be obvious that you’re not going away. Now, I’m sure some of you are thinking “why is he picking on the introverts” and, frankly, that’s a valid concern for all of us. I watch body language like a hawk and I know the difference between “not really wanting to play” and “about to bolt”. If someone answers me in any way, I’ll build that into what I’m talking about. If someone can’t make eye contact or is making serious avoidance signals at me, I’ll back off and cover it by flicking to a neighbour who looks keen. At that point, everyone gets (rightly) concerned I’m going to flick to them and I’ve taken the heat right off my original student. Humour, injected generically and NEVER directed at the student, can sometimes defuse the situation. It’s more risky than not, in my opinion, so unless you know that you’re a comedy genius and you have major awards for your empathetic handling of hostage situations, best stick to redirecting class attention in other ways.

I don’t see many really shy or introverted people who won’t take part at all in my lectures but, then again, I’m really keen on setting up a non-judgemental and constructive environment where everyone can have their say, without fear of being ridiculed. I’ve only rarely had to deal with unpleasant students but I’ll do it – and I think my students know that they can depend upon that.

My real concern is always with communication ability and the desire to communicate. Before anyone thinks I’m having a go at International students, I’m not. The range of linguistic ability, social awareness and skill in communication rungs the gamut across all of my student groups, regardless of origin. Yes, students with English as a second language can struggle a bit but I provide recordings of my lectures and I have become much more adept at understanding accented English – remember: their English is far better than my Farsi/Urdu/Mandarin/Hokkien/Bahaya/German/… Yes, there can be cultural barriers to participation but, then again, that’s true of mature age students not wanting to look silly in front of the young ‘uns. Or person X in front of person Y, for almost all values of X and Y, including X==Y! (The ultimate generalisation, you saw it here first.)

What I find helps is to provide the following structure to assist, encourage and sustain participation in lectures:

  1. Provide a clear context
    Let the students know the area in which the activity, questions or whatever will be taking place. Give them hooks to hang their answers on. You want their first answers to be in the ballpark of right, so you can lead them closer. In sufficient context will give you answers that don’t really lead anywhere and that makes your job much harder.
  2. Start simple
    Start with short phrases, show of hands, yes/no. Once the class is warm, get longer, get discursive, write things on paper. Walking in and, first thing, asking a question that needs a two-minute answer may not work with most classes.
  3. Build constructively
    Almost any answer can lead somewhere good, assuming you’ve got point 1 down. Take it and run with it. A lot of students already think that they’re wrong and we want them to confident, and accurately confident, about being right so we try and build a massive structure of beautiful knowledge out of an enormous set of tolerably reasonable bricks. Encouraging students to feel values makes spaces friendly, supportive and collaborative. You can get a great collaboration going in a terrible space if you have the right environment. The best lecture theatre or collar suite in the world is going to be silent if you say “No, try again.” whenever a student says anything.
  4. Activate damage control
    Having said that, sometimes you need to lead people back to the righteous path. Sometimes you need to stop discussions. Religion, politics, gender issues, etc cannot be injected – unless that’s what you’re talking about. Even in my ethics course I deliberately framed it as a non-judgemental environment, where I wasn’t testing moral compasses, I was assessing thinking. Any sniff of heated argument and I would have been in there, redirecting, repurposing and juggling like mad. If things are going really, really badly – stop the activity. It helps to have something up your sleeve but you’re always better to stop before someone says or does something that really screws up their lives. We’re not in loco parentis but we still have that role of pastoral care.
  5. Take a risk or two
    Students love seeing us out on the edge. Whether it’s solving an unseen problem or trying an in-class activity that might go wrong – the fact that you’re willing to try stuff goes a long way to encourage students to try stuff, too. I think there’s an aspect of mutual confidence that develops there. Having said that, PREPARE YOUR STUFF. 🙂 There’s a world of difference between a touch of risk and trying to run the whole course on a scrap of paper. The latter is not effective. (Unless you’re very, very good and I’ve never met anyone who could actually pull that off – although several thought that they could.)

This is what works for me – what works for you?

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