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Enriching the College Classroom Experience

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Travis Reginal
June 13, 2017

Now that campuses have settled into a post-commencement lull, it is a perfect opportunity for professors to rethink the way they facilitate and structure their seminars and small lectures. This is critical because college for most people is unlike anything they have done before.

The expectations for classes can be a mismatch to what students have previously experienced or are comfortable with. I think in-class participation is a vital part of the learning experience, but it should come with the realization that students may need help or guidance on how to participate. This notion can be overlooked by professors who are experts in their fields and are used to discussing their scholarship with their colleagues.

Students remember the experiences they have in class, and part of that memory is how freely they thought they could express themselves.

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Having students present their experiences in the classroom rarely happens naturally. In fact, in most of my classes, I left without learning from the experiences of my peers. As I start graduate school, I am faced with the same challenges of how to have meaningful dialogue with my peers. Many students do not believe in themselves and have yet to find their voices. This is unfortunate because we need confident leaders!

There is always the moment where the professor asks a question, oftentimes a very simple question, but students refrain from answering. It is not because the students do not know — it is because they do not want to expose themselves too soon to the judgment of their peers.

Erving Goffman helps to explain this phenomenon in his seminal book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Goffman argues we are performers, and that analogy can be compared to the classroom. When someone speaks, their peers can analyze them and make various assumptions about their intelligence or character. Students fear they may appear unintelligent because there is the chance, even if incredibly small, they may be wrong. There can be more to lose by speaking up than remaining quiet. The popular response to this fear has been the phrase: “There is no such thing as a dumb question.” However, in the mind of a student, almost any question they might want to ask could potentially seem like it could be “dumb.”

College is a weird experience. We bring people from varied, though often homogenous, backgrounds and expect them to share personal or professional experiences with strangers. Students enter in with an assumption of what their peers are like based off of previous educational experiences.

Some students were not expected to share their opinions in their high schools and are just accustomed to hearing the teacher lecture. Or if the teacher does ask for students’ opinions, it has become just a courtesy in which students are not expected to partake.

Building confidence is important. We can lose sight that previous studies have shown that public speaking is a top fear for adults! While the stakes are lower in the classroom, it can still be nerve wracking. However, that fear can be overcome through activities that provide students opportunities to become confident hearing their own voices or through prompts that really speak to the students.

A selling point for many colleges and universities is that their students bring a diverse set of backgrounds and experiences that enrich classes. I distinctively remember taking a course in college in which the professor asked if there were any policies that have personally affected you. Being from a low income background, my mind immediately went to cuts to funding for Medicaid and SNAP. However, I refrained from sharing my experience because I waited to see if other students would share vulnerable experiences. Once several students in a row started talking about policies that did not impact them in a profound way, but were simply observed, I used an experience that was more similar to those of my peers. Some students can feel they are not like the other students and can be afraid to share what makes them different.

Here are five strategies to encourage fruitful classroom discussions:

  1. Accompany readings with guiding questions. Students can often read a text or article and are not aware of how to use it practically.
  2. Create openness. Icebreakers and other methods that get all students to respond can help overcome the inertia of being vocally inactive.
  3. Learn what interests the student. Knowing students’ interest areas and personal experiences can help the discussion leader draw out a student’s opinion.
  4. Encourage debate. Have students pair up to go against their fellow classmates to help understand both sides of an issue.
  5. Find ways to incorporate professionals and recent grads. In the context of graduate school, steps can be taken to solicit examples from students who do not have work experience. In addition to asking students about experiences they have had in the workplace, the professor can ask about similarities to other readings from their undergraduate studies.

Author: Travis Reginal is a research assistant at the Urban Institute where he conducts criminal justice research. He is a graduate of Yale University where he studied sociology and education studies. Travis has written and spoken on the matter of disadvantaged students attending elite institutions for a number of outlets such as the New York Times, NBC News, and American RadioWorks.

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