February 17, 2016

Breaking Down the Barriers that Hinder Class Participation

by Teyrra Crawford, Doctor of Pharmacy Candidate 2018, University of Maryland School of Pharmacy

“Show of hands. How many students think the answer is choice A.”
As instructors work to incorporate review questions and checkpoints in their presentations, many students decline to participate out of a fear of being wrong.1 The lecturer is unaware of their students’ gaps in understanding the material and students miss opportunities for clarity out of fear of saying the “wrong” thing.

So how can we bridge the gap? How can instructors encourage students to be open and engaged during class discussions and when review questions are posed?  By creating a classroom that is psychologically safe – that’s how. The concept of psychological safety, simply stated, is the idea of “feeling safe”2 in the situation or environment. This is not about physical safety (although that may be a factor), it is more about the student’s comfort in sharing their thoughts without fear of being attacked or judged by their peers or the instructor. But the fear of being wrong is not the only barrier. In addition, students need to know their input is appreciated and, regardless of a difference of opinion, respected.

Let’s revisit the example about asking the students to select the correct choice for a checkpoint question:

Several students raise their hands for the various answer choices: A, B, and C. While the students still have their hands raised for answer choice C the instructor points to one of those students and asks her to explain how she arrived at that answer choice.

Depending upon the age of the students/participants as well as the content, this type of “on the spot” attention may invoke anxiety or withdrawal from the student (from a behaviorist perspective) as well as others (from a social learning perspective). The goal in creating a psychologically safe classroom environment based on mutual respect and openness, as well as providing a variety of opportunities for meaningful participation that results in learning success. By establishing a culture within the classroom that fosters active participation and engagement by the students, it will lay the basis for a classroom that is psychologically safe.

Understanding that every student learns differently based on personality and experience, “putting someone on the spot” may be counterproductive and make the student feel less “safe.”3 But fear not instructors — all is not lost! There are several strategies that can be employed to inspire students to actively participate. Instead of students raising their hands, if they have access to electronic devices, they can submit their answer choices through a polling system via the internet, or using software and devices designed to increase interaction. Classroom response devices and online polling, test student knowledge and providing a way to share the results while maintaining a level of anonymity. These classroom aids (like ActivClassroom, iClicker, RW poll) can be used to teach and reinforce concepts throughout the course while still tracking the individual progress and challenges of the individual student. Such technology has been integrated at Ron Clark Academy Middle School4, a school that focuses on making learning fun and effective for students. It can also be used in health professional education!  In a comparative study conducted between 2008 and 2009 at an Indian medical school, clicker technology was used during lecture activities and the researchers measured it’s impact on test scores. The results showed that test scores and retention up to 12 weeks after the course were both higher in the group that used clickers.5

Due to budget restrictions, using such tools may not be an option. However there are other ways in which instructors can cultivate an environment where students enjoy sharing. Instead of simply stating that a student is “right” or “wrong”, open the response to the entire class for feedback. In an article published on Education Week’s website, an instructor discusses the strategy of “sticking with the student” that she learned from the book, The Skillful Teacher.6 In the article, McCaffrey suggests how to engage the student after a less than optimal answer is given without making the student feel like he was on the hot seat. The instructor has to be conscious of their own body language and tone when responding. Additionally, when responding to answers, the instructor should praise the student’s thinking, while encouraging them to think a little more about the answer.  Sometimes the instructor should reword the question to help the students explore the concepts more deeply. Another strategy she suggests using is “turn and talk” session. Using this strategy, students have an opportunity to discuss their responses with peers before having to provide individual responses to the teacher.  This relieves some of the immediate pressure from one student while actively engaging thought and participation from the rest of the class.7 Instructors can incorporate “get to know me” exercises so that students may become more at ease with their peers.

While different tools help to engage students, the fundamental component of building a psychologically safe classroom is consistency.8 For example, let’s say students have been allowed to turn in homework two days late without penalty. Let’s assume, mid-way through the course, a student turns in an assignment a day late and receives a zero. Such inconsistency incites anxiety in students and can destabilize that feeling of “safety” in the classroom. Once standards are set in place, they should stay in place.  Or if changes must be made, adequate explanation for the change should be provided to support consistency and trust between the students and the instructor.

Some points to remember:
  1. Set the tone, be clear of what expectations are, and be consistent!
  2. Provide a variety of opportunities for students to participate and show what they know!
  3. Do some research and prepare activities in advance to maximize outcomes, minimize confusion, and reduce stress.
  4. HAVE FUN!!  Your enthusiasm will rub off on your learners!

****Please share your comments and experiences with establishing and thriving a psychologically safe classroom!****

References
1.    Schreiner CS. Handbook of research on assessment technologies, methods, and applications in higher education. Hershey, PA: Information Science Reference; 2009. p. 53-57.
2.    Preisler J. Being Safe vs. Feeling Safe [Internet]. Fosteringperspectives.org. 2016 [cited 2016 Feb 1].
3.    Nilson L. Teaching at its best. Bolton, MA: Anker Pub. Co.; 2003. p. 129-131.
4.    YouTube. The Ron Clark Academy ActivClassroom - Top Ten Ways [Internet]. 2016 [cited 2016 Feb 1].
5.    Datta R, Datta K, Venkatesh M. Evaluation of interactive teaching for undergraduate medical students using a classroom interactive response system in India. Medical Journal Armed Forces India. 2015;71(3):239-245.
6.    McCaffrey B. Sticking With Students: Responding Effectively to Incorrect Answers [Internet]. Education Week Teacher. 2014 [cited 2016 Feb 10].
7.    Phillips M. Creating an Emotionally Healthy Classroom Environment [Internet]. Edutopia. 2014 [cited 2016 Jan 31].
8.    Coetzee M, Jansen C. Emotional intelligence in the classroom. Cape Town: Juta; 2007. p. 31-32.

9.    Jordan R, Lin Foo M, Hooley R. Science engineering - McGraw Center - Princeton University [Internet]. Princeton.edu. 2010 [cited 2016 Feb 1].

3 comments:

Ebony Estavien said...

I agree 100%! Most children (including myself) struggle with confidence in and outside of the classroom. Although it is mainly the parents responsibility to help their children develop confidence, additional help from the teacher can go a long way! A teacher can not simply assume that all children understand everything and that they are the same level. For example, I struggled with test taking all throughout grade school. Once I got to college I actually attended a seminar about test taking skills (didn't really think I needed to learn how to take a test and that there are other strategies besides studying the material). Ever since then my anxiety about test taking decreased dramatically and test grades increased tremendously. Giving the teacher other options and avenues of helping children learn may also diffuse some of the teachers frustration of students not performing well. It may also motivate the teachers to continue to find ways to ensure all students perform well. All in all we need both the tools/methods to teach and the teachers cooperation/willingness to ensure that children feel safe in the classroom to succeed! Great work in bringing more awareness to this important issue Teyrra!

Ebony Estavien said...

I agree 100%! Most children (including myself) struggle with confidence in and outside of the classroom. Although it is mainly the parents responsibility to help their children develop confidence, additional help from the teacher can go a long way! A teacher can not simply assume that all children understand everything and that they are the same level. For example, I struggled with test taking all throughout grade school. Once I got to college I actually attended a seminar about test taking skills (didn't really think I needed to learn how to take a test and that there are other strategies besides studying the material). Ever since then my anxiety about test taking decreased dramatically and test grades increased tremendously. Giving the teacher other options and avenues of helping children learn may also diffuse some of the teachers frustration of students not performing well. It may also motivate the teachers to continue to find ways to ensure all students perform well. All in all we need both the tools/methods to teach and the teachers cooperation/willingness to ensure that children feel safe in the classroom to succeed! Great work in bringing more awareness to this important issue Teyrra!

Ebony Estavien said...

Just curious, is there any research that may suggest the traditional methods (such as the example in your article of the children raising their hands) have any benefits at all? If not and those methods are very detrimental to learning, I wonder why teachers are taught those methods and or allowed to use them?