A common complaint is that students "just sit there" and do not participate. How can we "make it happen"? The key to understanding this may be in examining the expectations that both professors and students have of small group teaching, and crafting a learning environment in which we might avoid "disappointment".
Technological advances have revolutionized the large classroom in the past twenty years. The virtual university now reaches out to those in remote regions who would otherwise never have an opportunity to experience a university education. The face of the classroom has changed, and with it the forms of delivery, process, and feedback in the transformation of the student.
But some things never change. When I heard Thomas Moore speak at the Holistic Learning conference in Toronto in October 2001, on "Educating for the Soul", his calm and stubborn idealism demanded that we remember the dimensions of face-to-face education that resist technology, resist distance; that reside in the "desire of the soul".
Perhaps this resonated with me because I am fond of working in small groups, and I have found it a satisfying and enriching opportunity to create a learning environment. PowerPoint presentations, overheads, even chalk and chalkboard seem to grate against what is called for in a group of twenty or less, around a table where if we are lucky, before it is too late, we realize the gift of simple community that can be an unforgettable learning experience.
For Moore, educating for the soul means asking our students what they desire. "What is the nature of desire that brings people to you, to your classroom?," he asks. "What does the soul want? This may be (and usually is) different from what you want".
What I find generative about Moore's observations is that it is perhaps the very closeness that the small group can bring us to the differences between us and our students that may make it a fearsome, threatening prospect. Sitting on an even plane, shoulder to shoulder, offering opportunity for critical comments, questions, and discussion, puts the professor in a position that some may define as vulnerable. But it may also be an unequalled opportunity to challenge ourselves, and our students, to engage in face-to-face intellectual discourse which is limited by other teaching modalities.
It is not only faculty who find the small group challenging. Students who have acclimatized to the anonymity of large classes may find that they are suddenly on "the hot seat" in an honours or graduate seminar, no longer anonymous, passive consumers of the professor's words, but "on the spot": identity on the line, everything riding on this performance. What is the responsibility of the professor in dealing with the huge shift in student perception of their own responsibility when they move from a lecture to a seminar format?
My hunch is that behind the trepidation is a longing for that which we all once thought education could be, a chance to open and grow in a safe environment. And coupled with this is a real fear of failure.
Tip 1: Stress the value of group work beyond the university
Many students do not value the skills they can develop through group interaction as a real, tangible byproduct of their university education. I try to impart upon all of my students an appreciation of the opportunity they have in their seminars to do "practice teaching" if they are hoping to become teachers. But more broadly, can we imagine any occupation in which interpersonal confidence is not an asset? By stressing the value of class participation, I find that students seem to resist talking less.
Tip 2: Get to know your students
We have to know where our students are, and to make them feel safe expressing this. Silence is just another way of conveying that we do not share a universe of discourse. And this is one of the biggest barriers to transformation. Overcoming silence means giving each student a voice, an opportunity to use that voice without ridicule or censure, while at the same time urging them on to a place of greater strength and confidence in their ability to communicate, argue and gain some valuable experience. You might encourage your students to visit your office hours, find out a bit more about what animates their lives, and learn their names.
Tip 3: Encourage students to ask questions
Coming to a seminar group with a spirit of inquiry guided by the principle that "the only bad question is the unasked one", allows shy or intimidated students to add to group discussions without feeling that they might be "wrong" or "foolish". If students are finding it difficult making statements about material, asking questions may be an excellent opportunity to contribute to the class and also bring out other students who were perhaps wondering the same thing.
Tip 4: Encourage group presentations
Very often students are intimidated by doing a seminar presentation, especially if it is for the first time. I once thought that group presentations might dilute each student's contribution, but over time I have changed my view on this. Bonds forged during this process allow for improved confidence, and this usually means improved presentations. In addition, diads or triads formed in working together seem to continue this in subsequent classes and this also improves the level and degree of discussion.
Tip 5: Encourage student feedback
If the students perceive that it is "their course", that they have input, that aspects of the course such as goals and organization can be negotiated as the course progresses, they will be less likely to set the experience up as a "dualism" between the professor and themselves. Over time, the possibility of conflict and resistance may be reduced if the students perceive the professor to be receptive to feedback.
Tip 6: Provide ongoing feedback to students
Most students would like to know "how they are doing" in a course while there is still time to modify their behaviour. If students are doing well participating in class, let them know. This will improve confidence and interest in the course. Students who are habitually silent need to be encouraged. Sometimes this can be done by letting them know that you will call on them with a question.
Tip 7: Nip it in the Bud
When problems occur, as with any classroom situation, it is essential to deal with them promptly. A class rapidly develops its own history, and it becomes harder to rewrite it as time goes by. If there is a problem, take responsibility and get the course back on track. Students are generally very forgiving if they know that we have done our best to deal with problems.
Tip 8: Circulate the "Respectful Learning Environment" handout (1)
Every course I teach begins with a discussion of pedagogy, and outlines my commitment to creating a respectful learning environment. But I stress that this is a collective responsibility. By doing so, I believe the students are made aware at the outset that they are not expected to be docile, passive consumers but to be actively involved in the ongoing evolution of the course.
To return to the basic question which guides Moore's analysis, "What does the soul need?", Moore quotes Jung when he says the goal should be "to dream the dream onward". For Moore this means not to do anything to stop it, because the soul will stop too. A "stopped soul" in the classroom is one that will not engage. Every student has something to say. Every course can draw that out. Every course also has the possibility of being "disappointing". By closing the distance between us and our students, we may encourage more interactive learning.
1. This is available from the Teaching Support Centre office. Faculty members are encouraged to modify the handout to meet their own educational goals.