Raise Your Hand: How Do You Start the Semester on the Right Foot?

Years ago, I published my best idea for semester prep, a checklist that has proved to be an audience favorite. Over the past 5 years, many readers have asked for my checklist, which I have freely shared.

I was knee-deep in my checklist a few weeks ago as I was prepping for this fall semester. While I was checking off tasks, a colleague shared a really useful article about starting the semester with a culture of student participation: Structure Matters: Twenty-One Teaching Strategies to Promote Student Engagement and Cultivate Classroom Equity, by Kimberly D. Tanner. I like articles with the word “Strategies” in the title because that means I won’t have to plow through a lot of edu-speak to get to the practical suggestions. Tanner’s article doesn’t disappoint, and I wanted to share with you a couple of the ideas that I tried in the first two weeks.

Student Raising Hand

A student raises his hand in class. Image Credit: UC Davis College of Engineering Photostream.

Under the category “Giving students opportunities to think and talk about biology” is a tip titled “Wait Time.” Tanner suggests that when you pose a question to the class, count to yourself “one thousand one … one thousand two … one thousand three … one thousand four … one thousand five” before acknowledging any answers. Remarkably, according to Tanner, instructors wait an average of only 1.5 seconds before filling the empty air with a student response or with their own. The extra time gives students who are not lightning-quick a chance to think about the question.

A related tip, in the category called “Encouraging, demanding, and actively managing the participation of all students,” is “Hand raising.” According to Tanner, “Novice instructors, sometimes awash in silence and desperate for any student participation, can allow the classroom to become an open forum.” That might not sound like a bad thing, but it could also exclude students who aren’t brave enough to shout out their answers. Combining wait time with hand-raising has two benefits: It gives students time to think and it gives the instructor a chance to choose who will speak. Both outcomes reduce the chance that the class will be dominated by a few outspoken students.

Speaking of hand-raising, Tanner suggests that instructors ask for at least three volunteers to raise their hands before acknowledging anyone. In her words, this strategy “allows instructors to selectively call on those students who may generally participate less frequently or who may have never previously shared aloud in class.”

Out of the 21 strategies, I’ll just choose one more to share: “Random calling using popsicle sticks/index cards.” For smaller classes, Tanner suggests filling a cup with popsicle sticks, each with a student’s name on it. When you want to call on a student, you simply pick one randomly out of the cup. For larger classes, shuffle those index cards you collect from students on the first day of class, and pick one.

So, how have I done with these strategies in my first two weeks? I guess I’d give myself a C. In some cases, I have encouraged students to raise their hands instead of calling out answers, and that has given me a chance to say, “Let’s hear from someone we haven’t heard from yet” or “Let’s see if someone on this side of the room wants to contribute.” I also tried the index card strategy during a lesson on experimental design. I pulled a card and called out the student’s name, only to find she was absent. I muttered “Well, this is going well,” the students tittered, and I tried again. That student answered the question I had offered — and probably would never have done so if I hadn’t gently forced his hand by calling on him. That was a win.

In other cases, though, I’ve succumbed to the satisfaction of listening to a whole class shout out the answer to a question they couldn’t answer the day before. However, Tanner’s article has made me realize something: When I say the “whole class,” I might not be including everyone; most likely, a few students remain silent. Breaking old teaching habits is hard, and sometimes I forget the tricks I told myself I’d try, but I will work to get better.

If your student engagement could use a boost, scan through the article and see which strategies speak to you. (In particular, check out “Do not judge responses” and “Use praise with caution,” both of which I also found especially enlightening.) I think you’ll be pleased with the scope and practicality of Tanner’s suggestions. If you end up trying some, please feel free to share your experience as a comment to this post.

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