Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Survey Says??

I have thousands of students in my past in a variety of classroom styles. I have won teaching awards and I feel very confident in my teaching. But this year I have a class that just won't talk. Oh sure, there's always one. But this one is the worst I've ever seen.

The first day of class, I had a large chunk of students actually try to refuse to announce their name/major/expectations for the course.  Not one but THREE got red in the face and looked on the verge of tears.

I have tried the socratic interactive method, the listing method, the barebones-basics where no one could get the answer wrong (what is the name of the author?), the group-work-and-presentation method, the preparation-for-submission so you'll have the answers right in front of you method, the LOOK AT THIS PICTURE WHAT DOES IT SAY TO YOU ANY ANSWER IS CORRECT STOP BEING SILENT method.

And after the last one failed to spur their little mouths into action, I'm stuck. I have a lot of experience with professional training and pedagogical theory. But even when I ask them about them, their lives, pop culture, music, what they are watching, anything, they shut up.

I have never ever encountered such extreme shyness before. They all prefer to "listen" they say. That's bull shit. Because listening to lecture does not equal learning. That's passive learning, and the retention rates in lectures are ridiculously low compared to discussion, interaction, collaboration, etc.

If this were online, it'd be fine: just check the comments and grade accordingly. I cannot simply retract attendance points here, because then I'd have to reveal that I cannot remember any of their names. And name tags? No.

Please: give me an activity that will get them talking.


  1. One-minute papers.

    I had similar trouble with a class that wouldn't talk. At all. So I turned to an old technique that someone introduced me to.

    I put an image on the screen with a question. Or just a question (relating to the text that they had to read as homework). Then I tell them to pull out a fresh sheet of paper and address the question. I say: I want to see everyone writing. Give them 60-120 seconds.

    You can then have a class discussion. Or not. Or have them hand it in at the end of class. Or not. But you've gotten them to think through the material and broken up the monotony of a lecture.

    I find it's an excellent way to get the "shy" students to feel like they can begin to talk out loud. It helps their comfort level.

    I use it in all of my classes now.

  2. I'm sure that anything Strelnikov suggests will work just fine.

  3. Index cards. Same as the one-minute lecture, on cards you can read aloud. Collect 'em first, pull a card, say the name and ask the student to recap. If they won't, you read it.

  4. I've always really liked this paper:
    and had pretty good results from using / modifying Gopen's ideas.

  5. Try think-pair-share. Get them talking at least to each other, then evesdrop.

  6. I've had a bit of luck with exercises that require the students to lead the class for a period, as long as I make clear that I'm not going to step in to get the conversation going, and as long as I stick to my guns on that. I put them in groups and give them a specific task--here's a passage, come up with two interesting things to say about it, and two questions for discussion--and tell them that when we come back together as a class, they will be the ones running discussion. Once they've had their small group time, I pick a group and ask them to start. They explain what they found interesting, and then they present their questions to the class. I make clear that I'm not going to respond to these questions--that's the job of the rest of the class. If they don't say something, we sit in silence. I just sit on a desk and smile expectantly until someone cracks and responds. Sometimes, I let them know that I'll rescue them if the conversation dies, but only after at least a certain number of students (3 or 4, usually) respond to the question--that sometimes gets them to respond faster, if only to get to the relief of teacherly intervention. In my experience, the first time through this exercise is rough; there's a lot of silence. The second time through usually goes a lot better--they don't want to repeat the discomfort of the previous exercise. Silence can be golden, at least as a learning tool.

    But I also want to take issue with the idea that listening is always "passive learning." I just finished grading essay midterm exams, and the two best exams by far were from my two quietest students. These students clearly not only took in what was discussed in class, but they synthesized that information in their own way, adding their own ideas and creating something new out of what they'd heard. When I was an undergrad, I was a quiet student--I rarely participated in conversations, but I don't think that means I wasn't learning. I just showed my "active" thought in different ways--usually in writing. It seems to me that listening is "passive learning" only when one listens passively--which, admittedly, is how a lot, maybe the majority, of our students listen. But some of them are pretty active listeners. I certainly wouldn't want to tell my two quiet students that they'd been passive simply because they engaged more readily with ideas in writing than orally. And don't we, as academics, learn a lot by listening? Isn't that what happens when we go to lectures and conferences? This isn't to say that the poster has a class full of great, active listeners--if I'm in Academic Monkey's position, I'm trying to get those kids to talk, too. But I also think we underestimate the kind of work some of our kids might be doing when they listen.

  7. I sincerely recommend you go back to lecturing, and do it well, which will mean a substantial amount of preparation on your part. I have serious doubts about your assertion, so fashionable among academics these days, that "retention rates in lectures are ridiculously low." If that's even true, it reminds me of what Winston Churchill said about democracy as a system of government: to paraphrase, it's the worst system ever invented, except for all the others that have been tried.

    I learned nearly all the physics and especially the mathematics that I know in "passive mode": that, and doing the homework problems honestly, by myself. The method can work well in subjects that involve known facts and right answers. I am not the only person to think this: see "The Academic Achievement Challenge: What Really Works in the Classroom," by Jeanne S. Chall. In the Apology of Plato, when the Athenians accuse Socrates of sorcery, he answers by noting that he never taught mathematics or natural science.

  8. Ditto Froderick. You can't just expect your students to be insightful and interesting about the material without guidance. Discussions are great, but they have to have something substantive to discuss, and they may honestly not know how to put the material into larger or more complex contexts.

    You say you don't even want to bother learning their names, and that precludes many methods of discussion assessment that I might recommend. You can't hold them accountable for their participation if you don't know who they are.

    Listening attentively to a lecture and taking notes is not a passive activity. It is a first step in processing and making sense of a large amount of information. Yes, I know that this is an unfashionable statement in pedagogical circles. But every education consultant who has ever spoken to my colleagues and I about the uselessness of the lecture format has presented this information in ...wait for it...lecture format.

    If you want better-quality discussions, there are ways to achieve that, but it will take more work on the front end than simply thinking up some clever pop-culture references or yes-or-no questions.

  9. Please let me qualify that I did not intend my above response as an ad hominem criticism of Academic Monkey. I realized after I posted it that it sounded that way. What I meant to express was a more general frustration that the format of college classes does not always allow instructors, especially adjuncts, the time or ability to create effective discussion environments that allow us to assess the progress of individual students, and to really teach them how a good collaborative discussion works. As a TA and now adjunct, I don't know most of my students' names, either. I don't see them often enough. Socratic circles and other methods are effective techniques, but few of us have the time to conduct these things, as we have so little time to simply cover the required material. Plus, evaluating discussion participation can be as time consuming as grading papers, and who can afford to add more grading to the already overwhelming load?

    A.M., I apologize if I sounded as though I was criticizing you personally. I did not compose my rant as carefully as I should have.

  10. "The [lecture] method can work well in subjects that involve known facts and right answers."

    I think that is key. It sucks in the Humanities, where there is simply no way to master the methods without actually doing them. I can talk till I am blue in the face about Moby Dick, but all you'll have in the end is my interpretation of it. Whereas if *you* talk about Moby Dick, you may get to practice close reading, historicist analysis, feminist theory, deconstruction, or something else -- and are thereby equipped to talk meaningfully about *other* texts.

    A Humanities class should be like a lab. And with 100 students packed into a lecture hall, it can't be. That means Humanities education suffers deeply from the new "massification" of higher education.

    Please discuss (just kidding).

  11. In my office, we have a talking stick, which is actually a rubber pig someone left there. The pig comes to a class where there are discussion issues - either not enough conversation, or where there's that one student who answers every question.

    When I want discussion, I toss the pig to a student. The student who has the pig has to say something. No one else gets to talk. Once the student has made a comment, he or she gets to pass the pig to someone new.

    Another idea is the "you have to learn this material" approach Bride of Squid suggested.

    If it's the kind of material where you can use pop quizzes or clickers, there's also which lets students use their phones or laptops as clickers. This will not actually make them talk, but it will let you see if they are active listeners or pudding.

  12. I'm not sure that lecture always sucks in the Humanities. I agree that there's no way to master methods without doing them; but there are a lot of steps that come before mastery. Aside from presenting facts to be remembered, lecture provides the opportunity to learn by imitation. When you're learning to do something like interpret literature, it can be really helpful to see what an expert can do with the text. If I'm new to literary criticism, watching Frog and Toad interpret Moby Dick is going to give me a clue about how I might go about the same activity. I learn from watching the professor, and then I turn around and get my practice by writing papers. Again, I'm a big fan of discussion; I just hate to see education as a whole cutting itself off from what was, at least in my experience, a valuable and useful method of teaching.

  13. I think you have a choice:

    1) Do things right: make them think, answer questions, engage etc. The Socratic method is good here and I like the: what is the author's name? question. (However, I wonder if they are offended that you would ask such an easy question. After all, they are geniuses and you are pitching a softball.)
    Problem: you get silence. The problem with this is that many professors use choice 2:

    2) Ask and answer: "What is the author's name?" Pause "Good! It is Manfred Stoll" "So, what is the definition of convergence?" L onger pause "Good! It is (blah blah) epsilon-delta (blah blah)." "So how can we prove this?" Pause "Excellent! You ..." and write the proof.
    I think the students have been trained to not answer because the answer is usually forthcoming. They have trained most professors to tell them the answer by not answering and conversely they have been trained to expect that.
    This method is both harder and easier on the professor. You have to prep full lectures, but do not have to prepare for tangents as you do in Socratic method courses.
    Choice 3: Put a bunch of facts on the board and tell 'em to copy them into their notes for the exam.

    Of course, choice 1 is "best" since when successful it makes the students into thinking human beings, but choice 3 is what they expect. It is my hypothesis that choice 2 leads to the highest evaluations. The students never have to actually work/think in class, and are encouraged by the instructor into thinking they are little geniuses. (After all, they got every question correct.)

  14. Frod, I have two almost antithetical responses to your comment.

    First, when I was sitting quietly in class as you were, I was not learning passively, and I think you weren't either. I was always trying to anticipate the instructor, out-guess her, or try to argue with him in my marginal notes. Physical passivity does not equate with intellectual passivity.
    But we aren't like most of our students. Most of them are quite content to just sit there and let the lecture wash over them like light entertainment. In order to get them thinking critically, we need to get them to engage. This is particularly true in fields where "there is a right answer": you want them reaching for it, not just writing it down.

    On the other hand, I'm deeply puzzled when I hear people in this thread talk about classes where they will say nothing to students other than to guide conversation. Surely, you have SOMETHING to say that the students won't think of on their own? Surely there are good questions and bad questions for the students to ask, and you can help show them which is which?

    I often wonder if the 'conceptest' idea might work in the humanities. "Which of these 4 questions about the text is a bad question?"


  15. Like Bride of Squid, I was a relatively quiet student, and more than once got comments on papers to the effect that the TA or professor wished I would bring up some of these ideas in class. The truth was that I didn't have them there, since I don't do my best thinking in a room with a lot of people talking in rapid succession. Writing papers alone in my room, with an occasional, also solo, walk -- usually to fetch ice cream, caffeine, or some other substance essential to college-student survival -- was a far better learning environment for me. When I did say something in discussion section (and I was by no means entirely silent), it was usually based on an idea I had come up with while reading in preparation for the class, or during lecture, or perhaps while zoning out on the discussion in order to pursue something that intrigued me for a few minutes (which of course meant the idea might or might not fit into the discussion as it had evolved when I re-surfaced; if not, I usually just wrote it down and carried on listening).

    I also listened to a lot of lectures, since the lecture by a senior professor/discussion section led by assistant prof or TA format was very common at my university. There was no attempt at discussion during the lecture -- not even, that I can remember, an opportunity for questions at the end. That's what the discussion sections (and the lecturing professors' office hours) were for. But I did have ideas during the lecture (sometimes at the expense of absorbing what the lecturer said next) -- and yes, sometimes daydreamed, doodled, or planned out entirely unrelated things on paper as well (I no longer have my college lecture notes, but I know that they would, for instance, include shopping lists for Thanksgiving dinner, which I prepared at a grandmother's house in another city each year, with food my father brought from yet another city).

    For me, at least, the system worked pretty well, mostly because the lecture/discussion classes were supplemented by smaller seminars, and, far more crucial, by two years of independent work (two junior papers and a senior thesis) which involved weekly one-on-one meetings with a "tutor" (in the British sense of a faculty member -- in my case an ABD one year, and a newly-minted Ph.D. the other, but others worked with TT faculty members -- who supervises a student's independent writing).

  16. I've gotten better at discussions since I've had to lead them, but, in part because I teach writing (and am lucky enough to be in computer classrooms much of the time), I rely primarily on individual and group exercises, workshops, etc., with short lectures/demonstrations/explanations to open the class, and wrapping up/reporting in at the end. It's probably more like a lab than a typical humanities class.

    When I teach literature classes, I use various forms of in-class writing, as well as group work in which students have to answer very specific questions (often leading them to discover details of a text which I then plan to help them put together, in the course of discussion, into a coherent close reading). I've been lucky to have well under 30 students in my intro lit classes; if I had more (and that prospect is looming), and/or if I ever found myself in a system similar to the one I experienced as an undergraduate, I think I'd differentiate more clearly between lecture and group work/lab work/discussion, and explicitly tell the students that lectures involve not only information transfer but also modeling of skills that they then need to practice themselves in some way. I've also often thought that I'd probably be happiest and most effective as a teacher in what I understand is the traditional English system, where a professor lectures periodically and meets regularly one-on-one or in extremely small groups with students to review writing they have done in preparation for the session. But that's a pretty expensive, labor-intensive system (as was the similar one I experienced as a junior and senior), and I'm not sure it still exists even in Britain. I replicate small parts of the one-on-one component in my writing classes (especially but not exclusively the online ones), but at the cost of considerable extra labor on my part.

    My apologies for wandering so far afield, Monkey, but I really don't have much new to suggest, except perhaps to try to set up some sort of more explicit alternation between your modeling and their practicing skills, rather than aiming for a more amorphously-understood "discussion." That might mean your lecturing at the beginning, their doing group work in the middle, and their reporting back, in writing or orally, at the end. Maybe you could give them a choice of reporting back orally at the end of class, or writing up something afterward, due at the beginning of the *next* class? That would give them options, while providing an incentive to do it orally.

  17. Wow, what responses!

    A few things. First, when you are trying to teach critical thinking, there is only so far that lecture can take you. In the end, the core of the course is forcing them to think critically in class to that they can show it in exams, papers, and presentations.

    Secondly, as I tried to demonstrate with the exercise of having them tell the class their names, this class seems to suffer from shyness. My other sections of the same class are talking to the point where the bell rings and they keep up the conversation.

    Thirdly, say what you like about taking notes during lecture, but in the end the majority of your students are not retaining anything. I see this all the time in that my online students -- who must retain the info in order to complete the exercises -- learn more than my lecture students, who can spend the class googling or doodling if they like.

    Finally, I have mentioned before that I am epileptic from a baseball bat to the head that almost killed me when I was 3. While I have many strengths in my arsenal, one deficiency I have is that I cannot remember names. Ever. It's a crippling problem for an academic, but I am very good with faces and keep track of participation that way.

    I am not being lazy.

  18. What I might do, though, is have them switch prep cards/papers/essays with another student. Then they are using the prep work of another student o talk -- if they are "wrong" it won't affect their standing, and this might alter the shyness problem.

    Thanks for your input, people.

  19. Bride, I agree that modeling is important, but only if you then immediately turn around and hand the students a tool to use to imitate it, right then and there (a question, a technique to try, a passage to unpack just as I did, etc.). So I lecture 10-15 minutes at a time at most, then off we go. I may circle back and lecture more later on, but in general I don't think an hour of pure lecturing produces anything but, at best, dazzle.

  20. @DrNathaniel: I'm sorry you didn't learn during lectures. I certainly did, even in my comp lit classes, since the prof who lectured about the factual historical and philosophical context into which the literature fit was well prepared and did it well, whereas the other prof who was Socratic was also totally disorganized and impossible to follow coherently.

    The lack of scientific rigor in education disturbs me greatly. I recommended a well-researched, well-written, book-length reference for you, "The Academic Achievement Challenge: What Really Works in the Classroom," by Jeanne S. Chall. All you have for me are anecdotes. Every time I have ever seen a prof decry "writing down on the board a copy of my notes, and the students making 30 bad copies of it with no thoughts passing through anyone's minds," it is inevitably an excuse for that prof to come to class unprepared. If we adults abdicate our obligation to lead, and to set high standards and to be demanding, if we allow our classes to degenerate into something resembling a game show, is it any wonder our students are so childish?

    @Academic Monkey: I've never been any good at remembering people's names either. I never do learn them all in a class of 100 or more, but pretending that I am interested in doing so as I learn 10 or 15 of them helps enormously the students' perception that I learn them all. Also, in the beginning of the semester, I photograph the class (a wide-angle lens works fine to get them all in one shot), print it out, tape it to a piece of foam board that at the top says, "Please print your names to (not over!) our faces," and "Please print you last names too," and pass it around. Many students are genuinely touched, since I am apparently the only instructor they have ever had who makes any effort to learn their names.

  21. If there was ever an educational method I hated, hated, hated, hated, HATED (yes, I saw King Lear lately: how can you tell?) it was group work. As the smartest kid in nearly every class, it would inevitably degenerate into me doing all the work, and everyone getting equal credit for it.

    I am starting to think that only the good students, who are capable of learning in ways that are cost-effective timewise for me to teach them, are the ones worth substantial amounts of my time and effort, anyway. Of all the gifts the gods bestow upon mortals, intelligence is among the most unequally distributed: it's almost as bad as wealth. I've spent far too much time spinning my wheels with students who won't be able to "get it," no matter what I do: as I've said in a previous post, I'm not a special-ed teacher.

    Another reason I'm starting to think this is that bosses in the real world like it. Notice that business presentations are almost always done in a format similar to lecturing. I may be good to train our student thoroughly in how to make best use of it.

  22. By the way, a way I've long used to get a discussion going is to say something provocative. It doesn't always work, particularly if no one in the class has done the reading: the classroom scene in Animal House depicts what can happen.

  23. Yes, say something provocative... like, "All Jews should be sterilized!"

  24. I want to highlight something Frod said:

    "I certainly did [learn during lectures], even in my comp lit classes, since the prof who lectured about the factual historical and philosophical context into which the literature fit was well prepared and did it well, whereas the other prof who was Socratic was also totally disorganized and impossible to follow coherently."

    A good lecture will absolutely, positively trounce a shitty discussion. Any time, any place, any subject. There is a meme abroad in the land that a lecture can never be anything more than a dry recitation of facts. It walks hand in hand with the meme that snowflakes will inevitably express their inner genious if we just direct their discussions. (I exagerate, but only slightly and to make a point).

    What matters is to get the students' brains engaging the material, processing it and integrating it into some broader understanding of the subject. Sometimes a discussion can do that. But it really boils my bottom when it is assumed that lectures are ipso facto a dry boring waste of my students time and tuition dollars.

    One (among several) approach I use is, having described some system, to ask them 'Ok, so now what would happen if we changed X?' They may not speak up, but unless they are completely passive (about which I could probably do little) they are thinking about the implications of the material, making connections, and solidifying it in their memory.

    If a book can engage a reader, make them think, and teach them something more than dry facts, then a lecture can probably do it even better.


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