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Quick Tip #3 – Giving Them a Say

Many of you know that I am a fan of James Lang, the author of such books as Small Teaching and co-author with Flower Darby of Small Teaching Online. [Small Teaching: how minor modifications to our teaching can have a major impact on student learning.]

I was reviewing an article written by Lang several years ago [Small Changes in Teaching: Giving Them a Say] in which he described something I know every classroom instructor has experienced: civil attention. Civil attention is a phrase coined by Jay Howard in his book, Discussion in the College Classroom: Getting Your Students Engaged and Participating in Person and Online. In an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Lang writes, “Citing research that dates back to the 1970s, Howard writes that “in the vast majority of college classrooms, we expect college students to pay civil attention. Actually paying attention is optional.” Students pay “civil attention” when they face the front of the room, eyes open, taking notes and occasionally making eye contact with us. But we all know — from our own experiences in boring faculty meetings or conference talks — that looking like you’re paying attention doesn’t mean you are.”

Back to Small Teaching. Lang recognized that when students are passive learners, there is much less learning taking place (because they are paying civil attention), and when they actively engaged, much more learning takes place. I think we all know this. In Giving Them a Say, Lang’s main point is that we should give students a measure of control to improve learning. Here are the three ways he recommends:

Student-generated exam questions. 

Students expect our exams to look a certain way, but what if we allowed them to choose from a longer list to choose from? Lang suggests that you create more questions than you actually want students to answer, or to even have them write their own questions. Asking students to write exam questions is a great group activity!

Open assessments. 

Lang also writes, “I have been intrigued in recent years with assessment systems in which students are offered a wide range of possible assignments and get to choose which ones to complete to earn the grade they desire. I profiled the work of one teacher who uses such a system, John Boyer, in my book Cheating Lessons: Learning From Academic Dishonesty. Bonni Stachowiak, host of the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast, spoke about her own use of open assessments in a recent episode.

Class constitutions. 

Are you familiar with the concept of  “a class constitution”? I found this idea intriguing. Cathy Davidson, in How a Class Becomes a Community: Theory, Method, Examples asks “Why does a class need community rules?” Perhaps you are not quite ready to go as far as Davidson does, allowing students to set most of the operating rules, but what about a class discussion on Day 1 about things like participation, cell phone use in class, late policies? Invite students in to the decision making process as part of your community building.

While many of us who are “old school” instructors will find the idea of giving students more control in the class, trying just one of these items might prove to be the first step in a much more successful course with improved learning outcomes.