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Moving Classroom Participation Beyond “Please Raise Your Hand”

Students raising their hands

We remember 10% of what we read, 30% of what we see, and 90% of what we do. This suggests that the emphasis in teaching should be less on what students are assigned to read, and more on having them actively participate in their own learning process by doing

This is often easier said than done. Active engagement in classroom activities and discussions can be an intimidating exercise for many students. Even for those to whom public speaking comes naturally, the benefits of oral participation might not be clear. There may also be social or cultural reasons why students are more or less likely to voluntarily speak in class – students who are traditionally underrepresented in the law school classroom, for example, may feel like their experiences or backgrounds are less valued in classroom discussions.

Classroom participation in law school is traditionally facilitated through a question-and-answer format, where questions are posed to individual students or to the class as a whole. While this can be useful, relying on this method alone doesn’t do much to encourage participation from students who are reluctant talkers.

Thankfully, raising one’s hand or being called on to answer a question is not the only way that participation-based learning can occur. Ensuring that students have a “good first experience” with participation is one way to create a more inclusive and engaged classroom. Professor Sarah Ricks outlines one such strategy, where she has students over-prepare and over-rehearse an oral response to a very straightforward problem scenario. This sets students up to be successful with their first experience speaking in class and gives them the confidence to continue contributing in the future.

The first-year Integration Workshop in McGill’s Faculty of Law is the perfect environment for offering students the type of positive experience that Professor Ricks encourages. I saw the snowball effect of the “good first experience” method early on in the semester: students who spoke up during the first few days and received positive affirmation from the instructor continued to participate. While the first few times were clearly the most difficult, a habit of participation began developing after that. Setting students up for a successful first experience with classroom participation can set them up to be active participators for the rest of their degree.

In order to continue this trend in participation throughout the semester, the instructor I’m working with also uses exercises such as “Instant Summaries” at the end of each session. She asks students to sum up what has been covered in the class, allowing them to respond to this open-ended question with a response that she can build upon if necessary. Not only does this provide students with an opportunity to participate, it also helps the instructor get a very clear idea of what students have actually taken away from the session, especially if multiple students are given the chance to respond.

Along with these particular strategies, I’ve sensed that students are more eager to participate when the instructor makes a point of promoting common decency in the classroom. Making eye contact, demonstrating active listening, giving students time to answer (even if this requires a few awkward silences!) and thanking students for their contributions significantly improves the classroom dynamic. When the instructor is enthusiastic and respectful about engaging with students, participation feels less stressful and more natural.

While the question-and-response structure can be useful for facilitating classroom dialogue, modifications are often necessary to encourage balanced classroom participation. Setting students up for a “good first experience,” incorporating other strategies such as “Instant Summaries,” and ensuring that common decency is promoted in the classroom are all ways of building upon traditional models of student participation. Imagine yourself in the shoes of a first-year law student, thrown into an intimidating new environment – what else might have helped you feel more comfortable participating in class?

Sources 

Kate Exley, “Encouraging Student Participation and Interaction” Reflections (Centre for Educational Development, December 2013), online: <www.qub.ac.uk/directorates/AcademicStudentAffairs/CentreforEducationalDevelopment/FilestoreDONOTDELETE/Filetoupload,432480,en.pdf>.

Sarah E Ricks, “Some Strategies to Teach Reluctant Talkers to Talk About Law” 54:4 (2004) Journal of Legal Education, online: <https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1107958>.

Jenny A Van Amburgh, “Lesson 8: Encouraging Classroom Participation” (Northeastern University, October 2017), online: <www.youtube.com/watch?v=e50pIUvYMKA>.

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