Multiple Techniques from Rob Traver for Fostering Participation and Thinking in Class

Filed in engaging students in class by on January 18, 2016 0 Comments

rob traver

Writing on index cards. To increase student engagement I sometimes distribute index cards (an electronic version will do) and ask students to write a reply to a question I ask, or to a comment a fellow student poses, or to something they are reading or examining (a chart) BEFORE I continue with the classroom discussion. This writing leads all students to pose something, at least to themselves, and makes it easier for them to contribute to the discussions, either by my asking them to read what they’ve written, share it with a fellow student, or, if they prefer not to talk, to have at least made some sort of intellectual commitment.

What are we talking about? There are times in a class where two, three or even four are discussing an issue in a lively way; but a quick review of the other students reveals that a majority have said nothing. I find this is often a point to stop everything and say, “Okay everyone, take out a sheet of paper or fire up the notebook, and write in two, three, or four sentences what we’re talking about. And be ready to read what you write.”  Sometimes, once the summaries are written, I ask students to “pair-share,” at other times I ask a student to read aloud to the class.  The discussion is not always about what I think it is about 🙂

Air-time. There are two aspects of student comments that interest me–how much is said and of what quality is it? With regard to the first, I use what I call an air-time chart.

An air-time chart is a pie-chart that is sectioned according to each student in the class. The amount of time each student contributes to the class is represented in this chart as the student’s air-time. By keeping this chart in mind, and mentally calculating each student’s proportion, I get a much clearer picture of who is and who isn’t contributing and to what extent.   As the instructor, I try to create an equitable proportion of air-time (which is not the same thing as an equal proportion of air time) by sometimes restraining those who “have lots to say” and prompting those who “say little.”  One of the things that is interesting about the chart is that if I share the notion with the students, most of the time they will self-adjust.  Those who “like to talk” will voluntarily restrain themselves and those who say nothing, at least some of them, will come forward.  Once, in a seminar of 12 very articulate undergraduate juniors and seniors (not WPI), I actually handed out sheets of paper with a circle on it and asked them to fill in what they thought was the air-time chart for themselves and their 11 classmates.  I asked them not to show me or anyone their chart, but to use it as an opportunity for reflection.  Amazing.  The two who were consuming all the oxygen in the class calmed down and two of three taciturn folks afterwards managed to offer a thought or two each class.

It can also be interesting to create an air-time chart for students that includes the instructor as one of the participants.

What do you think your classmate means? The interaction with students in a lively class is so much fun that I sometimes forget that it’s not just between me and the student but among the students as well. Thus, I have a little move where a student and I will have an exchange and then, rather than making the next reply, I turn to the class and ask, “What do you think your classmate is trying to say to me?” Student seem to like this “clarification” question, and of course it reveals all kinds of interpretations about the student, me, the class that would never have arisen had the student and I continued alone in our dialogue.

What do you notice? When looking at charts, texts, photos, paintings, buildings, nature, I sometimes use a technique that I call “What do you notice?” Noticing, in this case, means identifying low-inference items and patterns. I insist on low-inference, evidence type information (as distinct from inferential or speculative) so that students learn to construct low-inference descriptions and avoid “leaping to conclusions” early in an analysis. For example, I might take a painting and ask, What do you notice?   There’s a women. Her complexion is lighter rather than darker. Her right hand is crossed over her left.  She has a black dress. Her hair is dark and shoulder length. In the background there is a forest and a lake or river.  There is a snake-shaped road in the background. There is a book under her left hand.  Some kind of shawl, that has twists, goes across her left shoulder. She appears to be looking a little toward her left.  She doesn’t have any jewelry. It’s hard to tell but there may be a very fine veil over her head, but it does not reach her forehead. Her mouth is slightly turn up at the end, suggesting a smile, but it is not so turned up as to suggest laughter. And so on.

I move around the class, asking students one at a time to add something they notice, making sure that their observation is very low inference. By avoiding “evaluation or inference” early on in the examination a few things are achieved:

First, nearly everyone can offer something.

Second, because the observations are low-inference, they tend not to be problematic and therefore are very low risk for students. Everybody pitches in.

Third, by working through an observation this way students become engaged in “looking at the piece” rather than trying “figure it out.” This engagement leads to much richer, robust, and often more interesting material with which to generate later analysis.

A large list of low-inference items can be the grist for a good paragraph of description. With regard to the latter, I’ve sometimes given teams of students the job of describing one of several items, say Native American baskets, then put the dozen or so baskets together on a table, asked the team to read their description and asked the other teams to identify which basket has been described.

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