Friday, September 18, 2009

Five ways to encourage participation in the classroom

In the last couple of days I've had some fascinating conversations with my colleagues about why some students don't participate enough in class. While I understand that part of this could go down to individual personalities, the more I think about it, the more I believe this is a facilitation problem than a participation problem. I don't want to sound cocky, but I've very rarely had the feeling of 'pulling teeth' in a classroom. Though I'm thankful to my participants for being kind to me, I guess I do something that helps me get the kind of participation I expect. The key for me is that I value mental stimulation more than overt participation. So even if a student doesn't speak out very often, I'm usually satisfied if I can confirm that she was mentally stimulated throughout the training. I've tried my hand at breaking down some of my thinking about the tiny little things that I believe affect student participation and here are some of my views.

1 - Create a vibrant Training Environment

Imagine yourself in the vibrant outdoors on a bright day. What feelings does that kind of environment evoke for you? Most people tend to feel really enthusiastic in an environment like that - I feel like playing cricket or just lying on a grassy patch and day dreaming or playing with my dog or going on a picnic with friends. OTOH, imagine a dimly lit boardroom. Does it generate the same enthusiasm in you? Probably not. While I'm not trying to create stereotypes here, I guess you see my point that a bright, vibrant environment can create a much more positive impact on participation than a dimly lit, dull environment.

Tips you can use

  • Lighting: Consider a room with natural light. There's a lot we've discovered about the benefit of sunlight in the classroom, so I won't harp on that too much. Very often though, you have little control over the venue you get. What we do have control over, is the lights in the room. Can you switch on every single light in the room, to make it bright enough? If its not bright enough, can you bring in halogen lamps to make the room brighter? I often see presenters switch off lights before they begin their presentation. Avoid this -- it not only puts people to sleep, but it also puts all the focus on the screen. If you want to make a connection with your audience, they should be able to see you. If your projector is not good enough to work with the lights on, ditch it! Use whiteboarding or flipcharting - they have their own benefits.
  • Colours: I'm obsessive over colours in the class. And I'm talking about the things we can control in classrooms. When people walk into a classroom, do they see black and white charts or charts with simple, vibrant crayon/ felt-pen drawings? When you do presentations, do people see vibrant, colorful pictures, or do they see a monochrome, black text on white background slides? Colours evoke emotions and people like to express their emotions. There's a reason why we prefer color pictures, color movies, etc. How about using that in the classroom?

2 - Question your Questioning Style

Questioning is a great way to facilitate Socratic discussion. Questioning however is a subtle art to master. I've often seen trainers use questioning the following manner:

Trainer: How did you think you performed on our company values? (momentary pause) Do you think you did well? (momentary pause) What I want to know is how you felt you did on each of our seven values? (momentary pause) How happy do you feel about your performance on the values?
Students: Deathly silence.

You might need some context here. The trainer uses every question to clarify her previous question. In our minds we often know the answers to the questions we're asking. So when after a momentary pause we don't get an answer, we clarify the question by rephrasing it and rephrasing it and rephrasing it. In the minds of the learner however, you've asked 4-5 questions without giving them time to think. The consequence -- deathly silence. It may lead you to believe that your students aren't participating, when in fact they're processing your rapid fire series of questions.

Tips you can use

  • Use the PPP technique: I love to remind myself of the PPP technique each time I even think of asking a question. PPP stands for Pose, Pause and Pounce. It defines the series of steps to for group questioning, i.e. state the question, pause for 5 or more seconds and then identify someone who's ready to answer.
  • Open Ended vs Closed Ended questions:Use Open Ended questions to spark discussion and closed ended questions to steer conversation in particular directions. Questions are like power steering for your facilitated discussion. "What do you think about Obama's policies?" is an open ended question that could go anywhere, and "Do you feel that policy benefits native Indians?" helps to steer the discussion in a specific direction. I like asking for a show of hands and to urge people to respond to closed ended questions with a "Yes? No? Maybe?" set of questions as well.
  • Understand the Dreyfus level of your audience: I like to think of how appropriate my questions are for my audience. I've written about the Dreyfus Model earlier and I usually ask myself if I'm asking the right kind of question for the skill level of my audience. If you ask your Novice audience a Competent question, then you're more likely to get a blank stare and similarly a Novice question for a Competent audience will make them feel patronised!
  • Put heads together: For shy groups I prefer not to ask a question to the group. Instead I like to break the group into smaller teams and I then ask each group to put their heads together for a minute to discuss a particular question, post which I collect responses from each group - thereby triggering rich discussion. What this helps me do, is give the shy students a smaller, safer environment to express themselves and it also helps me rein in some of the over-zealous participants if any.

3 - Use Visual Reinforcement:

People remember visuals, long after words are forgotten. The question to ask yourself is - "How do I provide visual reinforcement for discussion in the classroom." There are loads of benefits to visual reinforcement:
  • People are hardwired to being visual, so pictures and drawings resonate with most of your audience.
  • By capturing what people say in a classroom, you personalize the experience to the group instead of making it seem like a staged show.
  • Pictures help you describe what words can't. For example, when I'm throwing out examples from my personal life in class, I bring out pictures of my wife and my dog, so people can identify with my stories.

Tips you can use

  • Use visuals effectively in your presentation. Garrey Reynolds has written a great post here on the effective use of visuals. I have expressed my own thoughts here and here's another set of examples.
  • If you cant use slides for some reason, use a mindmap -- mindmaps are great for capturing group discussion and are living, breathing evidence of the discussion in a group. Here's an example from one of my training sessions.
  • Try your hand at simple drawing: If you've followed my blog long enough, you'll know that I'm a great fan of simple hand-drawn sketches. I find The Back of the Napkin framework and the Versatile Visual Vocabulary tools very useful for classroom discussions. I've also written up a article here, which you may find useful. People enjoy watching other people draw and the act of sketching on the fly, naturally seems to open up your topic for commentary.

4 - Build a strong camaraderie

Every one of us struggles to question authority. Regardless of how outspoken we consider ourselves to be, there's usually someone who we will not question in public. One thing I don't like to portray myself as, is the authoritative expert. OTOH, I prefer that my students identify me as a slightly more experienced peer (a bit of an oxymoron, I know). That way, they are less concerned about my disapproval and more open towards participating. Also, people in the age group of 18-24 tend to be quieter than older students, so its important that I don't intimidate them into thinking that they lack knowledge or prior preparation. Lastly, friends or people that are comfortable in each others company are more likely to participate freely than people who are apprehensive about each other.

Tips you can use

  • Use examples that your audience can relate to: People learn best when the new learning builds on what they already know. A graduate straight out of university is least likely to understand a complex consulting example. OTOH, an example out of personal relationships may resonate better. How can you tell stories or provide examples in class that others can relate to?
  • Be open to self-deprecating humour: In recent days, some of the feedback I've had from students indicates that they really appreciate my ability to laugh at myself. I find that it positions me as a fallible, vulnerable individual, without necessarily harming my credibility. In that, students don't necessarily think of me as Spock from Vulcan and they feel more open to connect with me as a person.
  • Connect outside the classroom: I feel very privileged to be part of an experience like ThoughtWorks University, where some of my students have turned out to be some of my closest friends. This has made my life as a trainer so much easier because I haven't had the challenge of trying to build rapport in class. In most cases I've been facilitating a session full of my friends. I think as trainers we also need to ensure that students get to connect with each other as well. This makes a whole world of difference and students tend to feel much more comfortable in each others company.

5 - Be different, create a shared experience

People are more likely to contribute to something they already own. How much of your training session do your participants own? How much of your session is about things that you say vs things that your group discovers? What tools are you using to create a shared experience? Also, how are your sessions different from other run of the mill sessions that people have attended in the past? Are you creating a sense of anticipation for your sessions? Are students pulling each experience rather than you pushing them out.

Tips you can use

  • Call on students, but randomly:I've used this rarely in my ThoughtWorks University career, but I remember this to be a very effective tool from my previous jobs. I've used index cards (with one name written on each) and dice rolls to pick who continues a particular discussion. In fact you can adapt dice rolls to large groups as well, by dividing the group into small teams and then using the first dice roll to select the team that answers and the second dice roll to select who in the team answers the question. Index cards create a lot of anticipation amongst students as well since that way and as I used to shuffle the cards before eventually pulling one from the deck I could usually see the anticipation building!
  • Ask, don't tell: Build on your students' prior knowledge to drive your session (using a pre-course questionnaire often helps you to find out these details). As I mentioned earlier, facilitate Socratic discussion to build learning in the classroom. Respond respectfully to students’ contributions—Use wrong answers as teaching moments. Get others involved in understanding misconceptions and errors. Let the classroom be a safe place where you encourage honest attempts to participate

I guess I'm one of those people that places a lot of responsibility on facilitators when it comes to generating participation. I know some of what I've said on this post could generate controversy. That said, I strongly believe that before we question the lack of participation from students we should ask ourselves we're creating the right atmosphere for participation. These are little things that we can do, and over time these do add up. Please comment freely to let me know your thoughts about the topic. If you found this post interesting, you may enjoy some of my other posts.
Related Posts with Thumbnails