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27 June 2010

Encouraging *everyone* to participate in class

We all want to elicit responses from all of our students in class, not merely the very smart or very loud.  And, we all have different methods for encouraging or requiring participation. 

My ex-colleague Jacob Sargent took a page out of elementary school methods by writing each student's name on a tongue depressor.  He drew a stick at random, and that student would be called upon.  (As a side note, my wife and sidekick Burrito Girl points out to me all the time how similar high school teaching methods can be to raising-little-kid methods.)

While I have occasionally done the same thing using random.org, calling on students randomly is not a magic bullet to encourage active participation from all.  When a randomly chosen slug says, "I don't know" and is not embarrassed, calling on him or her has been counterproductive.

I can raise the stakes a bit with the familiar "check your neighbor" question.  I ask everyone to WRITE the answer to the question, then discuss it with their neighbors.  The class votes on the right answer, sometimes for credit.  My colleague Paul Vickers used to give "group quizzes" in this manner.

Michael Ungureanu from my University of Georgia summer institute was particularly enamored of an even more powerful, even higher-stakes approach to class participation which combines many of the above methods:  I ask a check-your-neighbor style question, and require students to write an answer in their notebooks individually.  Then, I allow several minutes for discussion.  But I tell everyone before the discussion:  I will select a student from random.org to explain the answer to me and the class.  (Not just to state the answer, but to come to the front of the room and EXPLAIN.)  If the randomly selected student is correct, I promise to cancel the next day's quiz.

As you might imagine, discussion in this case is generally active and loud.  And, I'd guess that the quiz gets canceled upwards of 80% of the time I use this approach.  That's fine with me, because the class discussion and peer instruction that goes on has a teaching power equivalent to at least three quizzes. 

[Image at the top from harvard.edu.]

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