Class Participation

Most of us have explicit expectations for students that they participate in class discussion and we include statements about their participation in their evaluations. We know that despite our clarity and our imploring, some students participate in discussion and others are reticent. Many students receive the same feedback course after course and semester after semester, suggesting that they participate more actively. It seems clear that hoping they participate does not translate into participation. Is there anything we could be doing differently to increase the number of students who participate, the depth of their engagement, or the quality of their contributions?

Likely, a student’s degree of participation is rooted in a number of issues. Students often see a professor as the expert whose job it is to impart information; they might not realize that learning requires their participation or that participation is part of their commitment to the whole class. Alternatively, a student’s lack of participation might be related to low motivation, to shyness, to worry about how they will be interpreted by peers, or to incomplete preparation for class (which in itself is affected by many issues – time management, reading ability, etc.). We won’t know which of these is at issue for any one student without conversation.

Short of meeting with each student individually, as faculty we can consider ways to change the structure of our assignments and classroom practices in order to increase student understanding of the role of participation in their learning, to increase their motivation to participate, and to improve the quality of their contributions. Here are some ideas about how to do this:

  • Make the reasons you care about participation clear on your syllabus and an explicit part of the conversation at the start of the semester.
  • In your norms for participation, make clear that you are creating an atmosphere where we can judge and build on ideas without judging the person. Value contributions for helping us think about the issues, not just for being correct.
  • Consider the different ways that students can be engaged in your class
    • Use small group activities and discussions as well as whole class discussions (having students discuss an idea in pairs or groups of 3 before the whole class discussion generally improves the number of speakers and the quality of their contributions)
    • Use technology tools for anonymous contributions (such as poll everywhere questions)
    • Increase “wait time” (the time you wait before calling on someone or before responding to their initial comments. Generally, increasing wait time results in more students offering comments and also gets students to elaborate on their ideas before we respond to them.
    • Use problem-based learning where students are working in teams to answer questions and present their findings
  • Increase the likelihood that students will come prepared to participate in class
    • Let them know at the end of class what they should be looking for in the reading and what you expect they will come in ready to discuss next time.
    • Give an assignment (based on the readings or other) that should be ready to share in pairs or small groups, present to the class, etc. right at the start of the next class session. Knowing they could be on the spot is often motivating to have something to say.
  • Ask students to write you a short letter about their participation and struggles with participation (either talking too much or too little) that includes one or two strategies they will use to make change.
  • Recognize quiet learners (during and after class)
    • Accept reflective e-mails—after class discussion has occurred
    • Ask permission to share their ideas (with attribution) in the next class session
    • Re-direct very talkative students who don’t fully engage with the content by asking them to support their ideas with research, articles, quotations from the text, etc. Or ask them to use the “Rule of 5” (they have to wait for at least 5 people to contribute before making another comment).

Engaged students are agents in their own education. The responsibility for engagement is not just on the students; we can prepare daily activities to support engagement by providing a number ways students can engage and upping the ante.

Further Reading:

Kelly A. Rocca (2010). Student Participation in the College Classroom: An Extended Multidisciplinary Literature Review. Communication Education. 59(2) 185-213.

Dallimore, Hertenstein, and Platt (2004). Classroom participation and discussion effectiveness: student-generated strategies. Communication Education, 53(1) 103-115

Halm, Diane S. (2015). The Impact of Engagement on Student Learning. International Journal of Education and Social Science. 2(2) 22-33



The importance of engaging prior knowledge

When someone asks you a question or you have a new problem to solve, the knowledge that you bring forward into your working memory to formulate an answer or explanation is the knowledge that you have already integrated into your understanding of the subject. The greater your expertise in that domain, the more requisite knowledge you have on the ready to consider the novel question. (This, in part, explains why someone with greater expertise is more likely to consider multiple sides of an issue and come to a reasoned response than a novice).

We increase the likelihood that our students will be able to recall and use what we teach by helping them engage their prior knowledge and connect new information to their prior understanding.

Our students come to us each with their own prior knowledge, conceptual understanding, skills and beliefs. When we present them with problems or new information, their prior knowledge and experiences influence their thinking. Each student might understand what we say in slightly different ways – attending to different aspects of the question, interpreting and responding differently to the learning environment, etc. – all of which significantly affects their abilities to solve the problems we present, to reason, and to acquire new knowledge.

New learning is constructed on prior knowledge. The more we understand about what students already think, and the more we help them engage their prior understandings, the more likely they are to learn well – and the less likely they are to misinterpret the material in our courses.

Since prior knowledge varies by student, we can be misled about what they understand when we rely on class discussion to hear their ideas. Usually, only a small proportion of the class will venture a comment in whole class discussions. Engaging all students requires different techniques. We present a few below along with some resources for student-active pedagogies.

  1. Begin a course or unit with a “benchmark lesson” whereby you present a provocative question that doesn’t have one clear answer. Ask for suggestions about possible answers (get as full a range as possible). Solicit explanations to get at the range of student thinking (increase participation by having them discuss in pairs first if you’d like). You don’t have to come to a perfectly correct conception, but do make it clear at the end of the discussion what you are sure of, what questions remain, and how or when you will answer them.
  2. At the end of the class session before you will be working on a concept, ask students to write what they already think or know about the topic. This could be as quick as a 2-3 minute freewrite. Have them hand in their responses on their way out the door. Reading student responses before the next class will help you understand what students already know.
  3. At the start of a topic or unit, pose a question. Have students work in small groups (3 or 4) to fill in a chart with 3 columns – what they know, what they think they know, and what they need to find out. This can be done on newsprint and reported out to the class.
  4. Use a discrepant event (often described in the sciences, but you creative folks outside the sciences will think of something). That is, have students experience an event that is contrary to what they would expect. This motivates the desire to understand what happened and why. The ensuing discussion is about sense making, whereby students ask questions, build upon one another’s ideas, and explore each other’s thinking. Again, pairs or groups of 3 are useful in the discussion.
  5. Use a Classroom Assessment Technique (CAT) called the Background Knowledge Probe. It is a short, simple questionnaire given to students at the start of a course, or before the introduction of a new unit, lesson or topic. You design the questions to uncover students’ pre-conceptions about the area of study. In Classroom assessment techniques: a handbook for college teachers by Thomas A. Angelo, K. Patricia Cross. San Francisco : Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1993 available in the library. You can post the questions in a Moodle “quiz,” create a Qualtrics survey ( or use paper and pencil.

Further Reading:

From Speculation to Science in National Research Council. 2000. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School: Expanded Edition. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Angelo, T. A., & Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

The First Day of Class

Often, we assume that students are shopping for classes on the first day of the semester. We don’t want to do too much since other students will arrive the next session and some of the students sitting before us will not return. Yet the first day is an important opportunity to set the tone for the type of communication and thinking you expect throughout the semester and to provide an overarching vision of the course – precisely what  students might need to know in in selecting your course.

Share the course objectives – what you hope students understand or learn to do by the end of the course. Give students a “road map” of the course – where you will be taking them (and why they should come along). Share key information about the course and your expectations, but don’t go over the syllabus word for word – that can be deadly (especially for students who are having a number of first classes).

Consider what is most important to you and work that into your first session. Here are some possibilities – select what makes sense for you and your course:

  • Engage students in a discussion of a question or idea that demonstrates the kind of thinking that is important in the course
  • If connecting with your students is important, share something about yourself (perhaps your intellectual journey) and ask them to introduce themselves
  • If having students connect with one another and respond to one another is important, help them learn each others names and something about each other
  • If you plan to use discussions, have students start talking on the first day
  • If you plan to use groups frequently, put students in groups on the first day
  • If you plan to use extensive writing, have some kind of short reflective writing activity
  • If you want the students to be in charge of their own learning, start with an activity where they are the experts, and cannot rely on you for information.
  • If you want students to be prompt, start and finish the class on time

And also, whether or not you are trying something new, expect some awkwardness. After all, it is the first day for everyone.

Further Reading: See the chapter “How Do They Treat Their Students” in Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do (Harvard Press, 2004), available in our library.

Apply – 5 College Blended Learning Grants

The Five College Blended Learning Initiative is pleased to announce two new grant opportunities for 2017-18 (with work to begin this summer), one for experienced “blenders,” another for beginners seeking training:

  • “Stage 2” projects are for faculty members who have already completed at least one major blended teaching project, and who are ready to expand and/or revise based on lessons learned.  Read the call for applications and submit.  (Deadlines for application are March 1 and May 15, 2017)
  • Mini-grants for Training are for faculty members just beginning to explore ways a course (or part of a course) might be blended.  Grantees awarded from these grants will be supported to attend one or more “hands on” workshops offered this summer within the Five Colleges or further afield.  Read the call for applications and submit.  (Deadline for application is March 15.)


Informal “Write On Site” Opportunity

One of our colleagues, Alexis Salas (Visiting Assistant Professor of Art History in HACU), is generously organizing a write on site group. Many of you have participated in Write on Site groups through the CTL. Here are the details Alexis sent:

Write-On-Site Hampshire College

The term “Write on Site” is attributed to Kerry Ann Rockquemore at the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity. It describes scholars coming together to work on their individual writing projects. Writing side-by-side at a regularly scheduled time provides accountability around just showing up and starting the work. WriteOn-Site Hampshire College also aims to cultivate a community of scholars.

Just bring your laptop and/or whatever you need for writing each week. Show up, check-in about what you are working on for the session and get to writing—Writing progress guaranteed! We hope you’ll join us. Faculty from all disciplines are welcome.

To limit the email overload, join us on Facebook to keep updated

Let’s set up Write on Site meet ups! Take the poll and let us know when you would like to meet. Take this Doodle poll to tell me when you are available this Fall 2016.

(The poll is specific to a given week—but really please treat it as your typical availability for each day of the week.  AKA, if you can’t meet this particular Monday Sept. 5 but normally can meet Mondays, then put in your normally available Monday times.)

Each session needs a sponsor (someone who can reserve a space for 5-10 people to write and open it) – please indicate when you can be that person and where the space would be. Write-On-Site can also take place outside of Hampshire College—please indicate what you are proposing and I will put it in the poll. If you can be the sponsor, email me with these details. Once we have established times (established by the Doodle poll) and sponsors for them (established by your emails to me), I will post the Write-On-Site Hampshire College days and times on Facebook.

Alexis Salas

Hampshire Faculty Receive 5 College Blended Learning Grants

Congratulations to the faculty and staff who have received funding through the Five Colleges to develop new courses that use blended approaches – incorporating digital materials and tools into their courses. Michele Hardesty and Alana Kumbier, Lili Kim, Jennifer Bajorek and Karen Koehler, and Uditi Sen.

The funds come from two consortial grants – one from the Mellon Foundation and the other from the Teagle Foundation. You can read about the programs here.

But here are our colleague’s projects:

Beyond the Riot: Zines in Archives and Digital Space

Michele Hardesty (Humanities, Arts, and Cultural Studies, Hampshire College): Beyond the Riot: Zines in Archives and Digital Space will use online, classroom and site-specific learning to engage students with zines as primary sources for exploring feminist, queer, and POC cultural production in the 1990s. As the title suggests, these explorations will include, but go beyond, the well-known history of Riot Grrrl. With a blend of data visualization, digital annotation, DIY videogame creation, and physical zinemaking, students will create transformative means of researching zines and engaging with the contexts of their production. This course will be headquartered at Hampshire and taught by Dr. Michele Hardesty and Dr. Alana Kumbier, but will include multiple sessions and collaborators at other sites. This course will be offered to all Five College students in Fall 2016.

From Sugar Plantation Laborers to “Gangnam Style Consumers: Transnational History of Korean Americans

Lili Kim (Critical Social Inquiry, Hampshire College): The goal of this project is to utilize technology and digital resources to deeply engage students in conducting transnational historical research through identifying, investigating, and interpreting primary source materials that span across time, languages, and continents to produce histories of Koreans in the United States. The emphasis and incorporation of blended learning work will allow students to access a growing number of important digital archives on Korean American history and U.S. history, and to help overcome the logistical stumbling block of not being able to travel to the archives to conduct research. Using selected online tools, this blended learning course will enhance opportunities and access for students to work collaboratively and individually on organizing and analyzing primary sources as well as synthesizing scholarship in the field. Students will ultimately help fill in the gaps in and further our understanding of Korean American history through their collaborative research projects, which will be available and archived online.

Reading Photography

Jennifer Bajorek and Karen Koehler (Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies, Hampshire College): Reading Photography will take an innovative approach to teaching the history of photography by integrating the design and creation of online course modules, organized around selected photographs, with a slow teaching approach. The digital modules will be designed to increase student engagement, enhance opportunities for collaboration, and deepen the knowledge­base and resources that students will draw on in their assessed work. By allowing students to cultivate knowledge of historical context outside of class, the modules will actively enlist students in advance preparation, thus freeing up class time and allowing us to focus, during in­-class interactions, on the development of mindfulness and critical concentration in looking at, and reading, photographs. Additional outcomes will include skills development in research methods, practice using digital tools to create and research image collections, and the sharing of the online modules to enhance public knowledge.

Refugee Narratives

Uditi Sen (Critical Social Inquiry, Hampshire College):  This project seeks to develop a blended learning curriculum that enables students to engage analytically and creatively with the memories of refugees in India and Pakistan. These are Hindu and Muslim refugees who often witnessed, and fled from, genocidal ethnic violence that accompanied the partition of British India into India and Pakistan. Their reminiscences, preserved as audio and video files in several online archives and blogs, offer a unique perspective, ‘from below’, of the partition of India, which is arguably the most formative event in South Asian History. They also encourage students to explore broad questions of universal relevance: how do refugees negotiate displacement? What impact does violence and trauma have upon identities? How does memory and identity interact in the telling of life stories? Oral history testimonies have often been describes as the ‘voices of the past’. However, since these testimonies are collected from refugees who not only inhabited a different time, but also a different place and culture, learning to ‘hear’ this voices is a challenge that requires not just careful study, but also creativity, analytical dexterity and empathy. It is here that traditional face to face learning in a classroom falls short of achieving the desired connection between the recorded, often disembodied voice, and the student who is set the task of hearing, analysing and understanding the narrative, in its full complexity. This project aims to develop a hybrid curriculum, entitled Refugees, Memory and History: Hearing and Interpreting Partition Voices, which blends together face to face or readings and lecture-based pedagogy with online resources and learning.

The chief goals achieves by this project will be to overcome student hesitation in creatively engaging with voices from a foreign context, to ensure collaborative learning while students work on their independent projects and to create a course website that maps the learning process and showcases the work of students. The key texts of this course, the interviews, are available in online archives. This project will also blend classroom teaching, that includes lecture, small group discussions and workshops, with online learning using wordcloud, voicethread and blogposts.