Optimising Active Participation – A Discussion

I was recently inspired by an article in English Teaching Professional to host what I call a “Professional Development Discussion Round”, where all of the participants are seen as ‘experts’ so there is no one person giving input and ‘telling’ the other teachers what/how to do things. I can highly recommend this format as an in-service training event! This post is a summary of what we discussed, to show you how productive the session was. The aim of the post is to encourage more discussion (e.g. in the comments section below), and perhaps to encourage more teachers to hold their own Discussion Rounds!

If you’d like to do it yourself, here’s how I set it up: The topic was decided in advance, and participants invited to submit questions they would like to discuss or receive input on. These questions were sent around in advance, and everyone was left to prepare in whatever way they felt most appropriate, or had time for! Some read relevant published articles, others dug out their teaching handbooks and reference books, and others simply reflected on their own teaching practice and examples from their own classroom. The questions were used as a basis for the discussions, and I took notes to be able to send around a summary of the points covered afterwards, especially to those who could not attend.

A little note on my teaching context: I teach within the English Studies Dept. at a university in Germany, where our class groups often include around 30 learners. Other participants were my colleagues from the department and from the university’s Language Centre, as well as secondary school teachers of EFL who also work with us on training new teachers. Nonetheless, I think the topic, and our discussion, is very relevant to many different teaching contexts!

Our Discussion: Optimising Active Participation

Below is a summary of the questions and discussion from our Professional Development round. Some of the points overlap, or are relevant to different questions, but I have attempted to present them in a readable order. The ideas are not all my own, but the results of our discussion, and often other colleague’s contributions. Sometimes, our discussions actually threw out even more questions that are also worthy of discussion! If you have more to say about any of the questions, please do use the comments section below to continue the discussion!

Why is Participation important?

  • It is sometimes a course requirement – this should be made clear from the start.
  • Students need to practice speaking English, to improve their fluency and to be able to get feedback to improve the accuracy of their language.
    • Because of this, it is important to stop certain students from ‘over-participating’ and dominating the class, so that a) everyone has a chance to participate and receive feedback, and b) other, quieter students do not get used to not participating and rely on others to carry the discussions etc.
    • One idea to ensure the students who most need it get feedback is to ask for suggestions from students who feel their answers are not good – then encourage others in giving constructive feedback. The emphasis should be placed on receiving feedback to aid their learning. This requires a comfortable, constructive class atmosphere, see below.
  • Participating keeps learners engaged – but there may be ways to participate other than speaking a lot: Participation of some sort is important to keep students engaged, but it could also be e.g. active listening.

How can we create an atmosphere to encourage participation?

  • Learners must feel comfortable speaking in class, and also not afraid to make mistakes – as these mistakes are what allow them to receive the most helpful feedback.
  • The teacher should make the purpose of speaking and receiving feedback clear from the start. They can also explain how they correct/give feedback and why they have chosen this technique.
  • It helps if the teacher knows the students’ names, and if the students are encouraged to get to know their fellow learners and address them by name. This helps students to feel personally valued as part of the course group and can encourage a ‘community feeling’ (see below).
  • Errors can also be approached in a positive manner, for example with a joke or anecdote as a reminder of the correction. This may help students to see participating and having their mistakes corrected as a normal (and not negative) part of the learning process.
  • Creating a community feeling among the course group also generates a constructive and encouraging atmosphere. It may help if the teacher tries to reduce the hierarchical distance between themselves and the students.
    • e.g. by referring to “our goals” “things we need to do” or “our weaknesses” (instead of “you need to…”)
    • e.g. by showing that the teacher understands the learners’ problems and process of learning, maybe with an anecdote about their own language learning experiences.
    • e.g. by encouraging the learners to help each other constructively to fix their errors or address their weaknesses – for example listing errors on the board at the end of a lesson and getting the class to correct the ones they know.

How can we nurture students’ intrinsic motivation to participate?

  • This can be achieved by highlighting the long-term benefits of participating actively.
  • e.g. by explaining the expectations they may face in future if they put this course on their CVs
  • e.g. by getting students to consider why they are doing the course, what they hope to achieve by taking the course, and what they need from the lessons in order to reach these goals.

What, if any, difference does it make that we are teaching adults?

  • Learners’ intrinsic motivation and the community feeling can be strengthened if we have an appreciation of the fact that we are teaching adults, who also have lives and responsibilities outside of the classroom.
  • The teacher needs to respect that their students have varying priorities and responsibilities, especially outside the classroom. It may be helpful to be open with students about one’s own life, workload, etc. so that mutual respect can be built up – the teacher may also function as a role-model.
  • Nonetheless, a balance must be achieved so that certain students don’t get used to using their outside lives as an excuse for not completing work or assessments for their classes; especially as others may be facing the same difficulties/stresses but nonetheless make an effort to complete work on time. One idea is to make it clear that as long as the student has handled the situation maturely and talked to the teacher in advance about, for example, missing a deadline, then they will be granted help/extra time, etc.
  • Though our students are adults, many of them still need support transitioning between school and university, including preparing them to learn well in the face of diverse teaching styles they will encounter.
  • With young adults, we should make an effort to cultivate self-direction.
    • e.g. they should be encouraged to ask questions – especially in class if they feel other students could also benefit from the information.
    • e.g. if they have questions, problems or require extra guidance, they need to learn to ask for it in advance. For example, for their very first presentation at university, students could be required to submit an outline in advance on which they are given feedback to improve before they give the (assessed?) presentation. This may show them the kinds of feedback they can expect to receive and how helpful it is, so that they learn to ask for feedback by themselves in future.

How can we organize students into groups effectively?

  • The quickest way is to assign students to groups according to where they are sitting in the classroom (e.g. the rows turn around to work with those behind them), so that not too much moving around is required. However, this may mean that students always work in the same groups. An unanswered question here is how helpful/important it is to separate friends who only ever work together.
  • Other options include:
    • Count off the students according to how many groups are needed, e.g. need 5 groups, count around the room 1,2, 3, 4, 5 and get all the 1s to make a group, all the 2s, etc.
    • Similar to counting, students can be handed out playing cards and ask to make groups according to the suits, numbers, etc. (Hint: Make sure they know the names of the suits and picture cards!)
    • Grouping students by ability; either high achievers together and lower achievers together, or mixed-ability groups, depending on the aims of the task.
    • If groups are going to work on a longer project, it may be wise to allow students to find their own groups according to, e.g. interests, times they have to spend on their English work, degree programmes, etc.
  • To organize groups quickly and effectively, it may be advisable to put them into groups first, and then give the instructions for the task.

 

How can we address an imbalance of input into group work?

  • Students can be grouped according to how talkative they tend to be, to avoid quieter ones being dominated.
  • Activities that include information gaps, or expert groups, lead to authentic communication to share information and help to ensure that every group member is responsible for providing a certain amount of input.
  • If the imbalance is created by certain students dominating group discussions, time ‘credits’ can be set that each student is allowed to ‘use up’ (e.g. 2 minutes per person), or students can be given/make tokens with which they ‘pay’ each time they contribute – and when their tokens are all gone, they will have to let the others have their turns to speak. However, these techniques may affect the authenticity of the discussion/group work.
  • For whole-class activities, students can be picked randomly to participate (recent studies have shown that teachers often think they do this, but indeed their ‘random selection’ is in fact often rather biased.) Techniques to make the process really random include popsicle sticks, dice, picking contributors based on their birthday, etc.
  • One reason some students may not participate as much is that they might need longer to think about and formulate their answer. Some ideas to allow them this thinking time include:
    • Think-Pair-Share (students think about their answers alone, discuss them with a neighbour, and then share with the class)
    • Asking everyone to put their hand up once they think they know the answer, and waiting until everyone is ready. Students can then be allowed to put their hand down again if they do not want to share their answers with the whole class, but often if they have ‘bothered’ to figure out the answer, they will leave their hands up, and so the teacher can call on the quieter ones to answer.
  • Another suggestion is to talk to the quiet students individually outside of the lesson to find out why they don’t seem to participate very much – and then to work on strategies to help them talk more in class.

(How) can we assess participation effectively?

  • This discussion comes down to quality vs quantity when assessing spontaneous language production – if assessment is only based on prepared contributions (e.g. presentations), we may miss mistakes a student makes when they speak spontaneously. It is particularly a problem if oral participation contributes to students’ grades for a class.
  • Keeping a tally list of students’ participation is a good way of keeping track of the frequency with which they talk in class: though it mainly focuses on quantity, more tally marks can be given if a contribution is particularly good, and if a student only offers a simple answer in order to receive a tally mark, they can be given no or just ½ a mark. This method has the advantage of showing students that it is OK to make mistakes in class, as they get tally points for trying.
  • Including a lot of pair-work activities in the lesson will ensure that most people actually speak, but it is hard for the teacher to actually assess the language competence of individual students.
  • Suggestions of activities to include spontaneous, individual speech in the lesson are hot seat activities, expert panels, role plays, mad discussions etc. Since only one or two students will be speaking at any time, it is easier for the teacher to make a note of any errors.
  • Finally, a controversial question is whether we can or should even assess oral participation; perhaps it is more important to encourage students to make the most of participating in class for their own learning process and move them away from the attitude of chasing grades. (Though this is a problem if the oral participation contributes to their course grade!)
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