Thirsty for a Strong Instructional Practice?
Do you ever find class becomes dominated by a few student voices? Have you struggled to figure out how to maintain those few students’ enthusiastic interest in the class while making space for others to speak up as well? Or there is the other version of student voice – the know-it-all, disruptive student who wants to make sure other students and the instructor know just how much s/he already knows about the topic? How does an instructor help that student learn from others’ perspectives without silencing the positive contributions that may come from that student’s voice?
Take a SIP of This: Facilitating Equality of Student Voice in Class
Ensuring that student voices are heard equitably in class is not just about best practices, but also about retention, because studies have shown that students from a variety of backgrounds in undergraduate (science) courses experience feeling excluded and alienated and feel a sense of competition with peers (Johnson, 2007). When students feel socially excluded or alienated, it may impact their academic performance and retention, regardless of their true academic ability.
Research indicates that, “Feelings of exclusion—whether conscious, unconscious, or subconscious—have significant influences on student learning and working memory, as well as the ability to perform in academic situations, even when achievement in those academic arenas has been documented previously (e.g., Steele and Aronson, 1995; Steele, 1999). …However, there is also research evidence that relatively subtle interventions and efforts in classrooms may be effective at blunting feelings of exclusion and promoting student learning (Cohen et al., 2006 ; Miyake et al., 2010 ; Haak et al., 2011 ; Walton et al., 2013 ).” (Taken directly from Tanner, 2013, see below).
Here are some ideas for facilitating equality of student voice in class discussions:
- Know Students’ Names: If you know your students’ names, you can purposely call on a variety of students. If there are too many people, you can have a class list out and let students know you will be calling on them randomly so that everyone hears from a variety of voices in the class.
- Speak up / Sit Back: It is important to set guidelines early about speaking and listening expectations, even before anyone dominates in class. You set the culture, with students or on your own. You can use hand raising, and let people know you will take comments from people who have not spoken yet. Let students know that if they are taking up too much “air time,” you will call on others in order to share the space, and then follow through on that. Encourage students to self-regulate and notice when they are talking a lot and when they are quiet. Then ask them to actively reverse their own personal pattern.
- Gather Data: You and/or your students can incorporate paying attention to interaction patterns into class. You can have students count how many times they respond verbally in class and how many times they wish they had spoken up. Then display a graph to see how equitable student voice is in class. Sometimes seeing the data helps students see their role in creating student voice or lack thereof.
- Wait Time: Sometimes students stay quiet because they need a few moments to process the question before responding. Instructors can address this by purposefully adding wait time into the discussion. You can say something like think about this for 10 seconds before sharing or write a response to this then I will call on someone. Adding reflection time helps many different students gather their thoughts before blurting out answers.
- Alternative formats: Not all students are going to be comfortable with speaking up in class. There will always be students who simply don’t process orally, but who have a lot to contribute. Instructors should include other options for participation besides just speaking like one minute quick writes (SIP 2.8).
- Now, for the know-it-all: Perhaps you are not struggling with a few enthusiastic students but are struggling with one student who dominates a conversation. First remember, this is your classroom and you set the tone in it – so set that tone early. Let students see your enthusiasm for the topic and for them early so when you do have to directly ask someone to be quiet you have not lost face.
- Demonstrate respect for students by not talking down to them and by noticing what they do well in authentic ways.
- Use proximity control. Move around the classroom when you teach if at all possible. Dominating discussion usually diminishes if you are physically closer to the person. Your presence changes the dynamic.
If a student’s interaction pattern becomes an ongoing issue, speak with that person in the hall, not in front of the whole class in a showdown. Tell him/her that how they dominate discussions is not fair to the rest of the class. Do not let the behavior slide; talk to him/her sooner than later and in a direct, but not rude, manner. You might say something like, “I wanted to talk with you about how much you talk in class. It does not give others a chance to share their perspectives.”
If this does not alleviate the problem, let the student know that you need a one-on-one chat away from class, perhaps during office hours, or offer to get coffee to talk in more impartial space. Explain what you see in clear and observable terms, and describe the effect on you and on peers in the class. Ask directly for the goal of this behavior. You might say something like, “What needs are you trying to get met when you X? Is it working? If not you might want to try Y to get your needs met in my class.”
If the issue persists , enlist the help of a Chair or Dean, someone with more perceived power than you, to help convey to the student the importance of sharing voice in the class.
Still Thirsty? Take Another SIP of Facilitating Equality of Student Voice in Class
- Tanner, 2013, Structure Matters: Twenty-One Teaching Strategies to Promote Student Engagement and Cultivate Classroom Equity.
- This SIP specifically addresses whole group discussion. One of the best ways to address student voice is to lessen whole group discussion in favor of pairs/ small groups/ think, pair, share, etc. See SIP 1.7: Instructional Grouping for more on alternative discussion formats.