Wednesday, February 21, 2007

We Have Ways To Make You Talk..

Most people who have taught a seminar-style class have probably struggled with the issue of how to get everyone to participate. I face this issue in freshman seminars and in graduate seminars. I enjoy the challenge of getting freshmen to speak in a seminar -- most freshmen have never had a discussion-type class and need some help to feel comfortable speaking in that type of environment (especially the female students). With lots of friendly encouragement, class participation is typically high by the end of the semester.

In graduate seminars, participation is hugely variable. Some first or even second year students need time to feel comfortable, but even then, some grad students never say much, if anything, in seminars unless forced to. I am very inconsistent from year to year in terms of how I deal with this. Some semesters, I don't do anything more than assigning a student to be the discussion leader each week. Other semesters, I am more controlling about the format, so that everyone has to speak whether they want to or not. In the more free-form format, it's interesting how frustrated the discussion-leaders get with their fellow students who don't participate in the discussion or who come to seminar unprepared. For some, this is a wake-up call, and they come prepared to participate in subsequent weeks. Some slip back into their quiet and/or unprepared mode once their major responsibility is over. I think this says a lot about a student's motivation, though I prefer to form my general opinion over the course of the entire semester, not based on any one week (everyone has busy weeks).

A seminar with lots of discussion is a more interesting seminar, but my desire for a lively discussion is balanced by my wish to have the students take responsibility for themselves and not be forced to contribute if they'd rather just sit in a torpor. I make it clear at the beginning of a seminar that my expectation is that everyone actively participate in discussions every week and come to class prepared (i.e., having read and thought about the papers to be discussed, and ideally with questions or comments to discuss). Some students do this and some don't.

I like assigning or asking for volunteers for discussion-leaders in advance because these students tend to do an excellent job preparing and seeking out additional background information to bring to the discussion. When this system works, it works well. I had one student recently, though, whose idea of leading a discussion was to say "So what did everyone think of these papers?" and sit back and hope that everyone else had something to say.

Some of my colleagues use various techniques for 'inspiring' participation. One colleague doesn't announce in advance who will be the discussion leader, then he chooses someone (or has a random drawing) at the beginning of each class. Students tend to prepare well so that they won't be humiliated, but my colleague admits that some students prepare the minimum anyway, and he sometimes ends up leading the discussion himself.

Grades shouldn't be the main motivator for grad students, but in a pass/fail seminar, some students seem to think that they will pass if they just show up often enough. Perhaps if they knew they would fail if they never participated in discussions, this would help motivate them, but I haven't yet wanted to go that route.

I am sympathetic to new students who need some time feel comfortable in seminars. I can remember how I felt as a new grad student in a seminar dominated by aggressive male students. It was very difficult for me to speak up. I eventually solved the problem by talking to the other students informally before the seminar about the discussion topic. I found that they were really only aggressive in the seminar, where they were vying to impress our advisor. Outside of seminar, they were very happy to talk to me, and very patient about answering my basic questions. As a result, I felt more comfortable in the seminar, and started participating more.

I don't feel that I've found the ideal solution to this perennial seminar issue, but I've decreased the problem a bit by giving students a say in seminar topics and by making each student responsible for some of the discussions. I'd be interested in hearing any new ideas to increase seminar participation without resorting to control methods that essentially force students to participate.


Anonymous said...

One of the approaches that we've found to work is to design the student seminar course around the department colloquium. The basic format is that the coming speaker is contacted and asked to assign 2 papers for discussion. The students then present and discuss these two papers in the seminar. The basic format is that one student summarizes the main findings of one paper in the first five minutes (each paper is allotted 25 mins in the 50 min session). The faculty member then goes over some subtle technical details (methods, calculations etc.) Then the floor is opened up and the students deconstruct the paper figure by figure. After 25 min. we move on to the next paper.

The following week, the students get to have lunch with the colloquium speaker and usually come armed with a ton of questions and comments. This works best when the speaker is quite dynamic, and usually they are. The great incentive for the students is that if they stand out, then they stand a good chance of impressing themselves on the speaker.

I have found that this leads to many thoughtful discussions and the students come up with some nice insights. Most speakers say that they really enjoyed the preparation on the students' part.

catswym said...

in seminar classes that i've taken, the format that has worked best is that everyone is assigned to read the papers and the prof will just randomly call out: student x, tell me about the goal of the paper; student y, tell me about figure one/experiment one, etc.

this requires all the students to have read the papers in detail enough to answer and to discuss. and once students start talking they seem to continue.

it also helps if when a student says something incorrect the prof says something along the lines of: "tell me what you mean by that" or "what makes you say that?" rather than "no, anyone else?".

also, none of my classes have ever been pass/fail, they are letter graded and the prof makes it clear that grade depends on class participation.

Elli said...

Sorry, but I'd have to disagree with catswym. Classes are nice and all, but I am guilty of doing the minimum required to get by - because of the class quality and my own learning style, I find them rather useless and would rather spend my time on my own research. As a result, I'd probably only REALLY do the reading if I KNEW I couldn't get away with avoiding it.

That said, right now I'm taking a seminar that I really enjoy. We ARE required to read and present mini-summaries of papers (which gets everyone reading), but we're also asked little questions throughout the class - nothing revolutionary, just basics or intermediate material that we probably already know. Sounds silly, but it keeps everyone awake and makes us feel more engaged.

And if you're lobbed a "softball" question once in a while and always pipe up, you're more likely to start talking more in general and participating in more complex discussions!

B said...

I've had grad classes where everyone had to email the prof by X time before class two comments or questions about the assigned reading. People seemed more willing to talk because they had to do the reading, also if discussion got slow the professor would say this email really piqued my interest, what do you suppose the answer is to this.... and read part of the email.

Anonymous said...

I've also had classes where the students were required to send an email summary/comments/questions to the instructor before class. However, mine also required a follow- up email after the discussion to talk about how our opinions changed after class. This was irritating to do, but did get us to read at least enough to make comments.

This approach was most effective when the professor resonded to the emails, which made it seem like it mattered what we wrote. Unfortunately, I felt kind of embarrassed when I learned that he replied to many more of my emails than the other students'. I learned this during a lunch conversation when I said, "isn't it amazing that Professor X has time to respond to all our boring emails for class journal club?" and the others said, "Professor X responds to all your emails? He's only replied to me once." Maybe theirs were more boring than mine. Or maybe Professor X thought I demonstrated a serious need for guidance!

Am I a woman scientist? said...

This post has caused me a nasty eyelid spasm. I have found these seminars to be painful from both the graduate student and professor side of the coin.

On the grad student side, I was one of those who always had something to say, and I felt like my efforts allowed others to slack yet get the same grade as me. In one class, I actually stopped talking midway through a sentence and said, "I am getting really tired of hearing my own voice."

On the professor side, in my most recent seminar I told my students on day 1 that 20% of their grade would be based on participation: they had to say at least one intelligent thing or question per class, or they would lose 10% of that 20% for each nonparticipatory class. Even that didn't work for two students, who refused to say anything until it was their turn to lead the class. Each student had to begin the class they led with a synopsis of the paper, and one of these jokers just read the abstract and said, "Any questions?" I told him to drop at the end of that class, and then had a little discussion with his advisor.

Ms.PhD said...

Pick a topic and pick a side: approach something controversial, and get the students riled up. This usually gets everyone talking and arguing and works a lot better than the usual forced discussion questions. I've been really impressed to see students almost jumping out of their seats wanting to talk- and these are often students who otherwise slouch and roll their eyes. Especially at the grad student level, classes are generally a waste of time if it's going to be slogging through material rather than *applying* it. If you let the students feel like even their discussion is part of the science, you'll probably learn a lot from them and they'll love it, too. They'll have to understand the technical and theoretical aspects to argue effectively and understand why these issues matter. Seems to me that, with some forethought, this could work well for almost any topic. Science is sink or swim, and grad students deserve better than to be spoon-fed. They want anything but to be molly-coddled. I know I did!

stefan said...

some method - somehow similar to the email thing - may work if you have breaks during the class.
You may ask the student to write done a comment or questions on the topic, handled before the break. Then they can put the note either in a box (beeing more anonymous) or on a board.
You may start then to read the note/question loud and ask: What may have the writer meant with this? ...

another fine thing is to ask a questions. And then these are in a first step discussed in "buzz groups" = 2min talk between two neighbouring student.

this have been some suggestions made during a teaching seminar i had.