Teaching After the U.S. Election

Teaching After the U.S. Election

At the Sheridan Center, we anticipate that many instructors are wondering about what to do in their classes after the U.S. election. Below, we offer several possibilities for addressing the topic or acknowledging the level of emotion that many members of the Brown community may be facing at this time. Generally, research suggests that students find helpful instructors' efforts to acknowledge issues of deep campus concern, whether using a small amount of class time (like a brief acknowledgement) or more extended portion of the course (like a planful discussion) (Huston & DiPietro, 2007).

Acknowledging your concern for students: A brief non-partisan acknowledgement of your concern for students' well-being during difficult emotional times can signal your care for students while also addressing the need to focus class time on key course objectives. Instructors can also invite students to write briefly using a minute paper, with prompts such as inviting them to reaffirm their own key values or to link observed dynamics to course content. One study of instructional responses after large-scale emotional events found that the vast majority of students found it helpful when an instructor noted that the class would proceed, but if students were too distressed to process the material, the class would offer other opportunities for review in the future (Huston & DiPietro, 2007).

Holding a planful discussion soon: Depending on the learning objectives of your class, a discussion of the election can benefit student learning, engagement and well-being -- and help you address course material in a highly relevant way. However, thinking planfully about a controversial discussion is important to avoid some common pitfalls, which psychologist Derald Sue (2013) summarizes as silencing, abruptly cutting off dialogue, and allowing the discussion to develop in unproductive and potentially harmful ways. If you choose to have a discussion during class, planning the contours of the discussion and anticipating hot moments are important considerations.

Useful Sheridan resources for planning the discussion include:

Although a heated verbal exchange is the most popular image of a controversial discussion, silence is another common outcome (Sue, 2013). For silent or superficial discussions, Helen Fox (2009) recommends having students write on an index card, "One thing I've been reluctant to say....," which serves as a prompt for follow-up discussion.

Staging a discussion for later: A third possibility is to combine both of the approaches above by engaging in a brief acknowledgement in the immediate week but postponing decisions about a discussion until later. This approach may be preferable if you are processing your own emotional response, if you want more time to think through an approach, or if students raise the topic in ways that you had not anticipated. In the latter case, instructors can recognize the importance of the topic, indicate that more time would be helpful to think about it, and, if applicable, that they may plan to revisit it in later class sessions.

Other resources that may be useful include Returning to the Classroom After the Election and Managing Hot Moments in the Classroom. The Sheridan Center is also available to plan or debrief post-election classroom discussions: sheridan_center@brown.edu.

Fox, H. (2004). "When race breaks out": Conversations about race and racism in college classrooms. New York: Peter Lang.

Huston, T.A., & DiPietro, M. (2007). In the eye of a storm. To Improve the Academy, 25: 207-224.

Sue, D .W. (2013, November). Race talk: The psychology of racial dialogues. American Psychologist: 663-672. 

Fostering Equitable Classroom Participation

Student participation factors into many instructional approaches used by Brown faculty, whether through discussion, presentations, or in- and out-of-class writing and problem solving. Approaches that use student interaction are most likely to enhance student learning in a diverse classroom (Gurin, 2000; Milem, 2000). Yet, as the Brown Daily Herald reported, some students report nervousness or anxiety about speaking in class (Wang, 11/3/16), and at one time or another, many faculty have experienced a silent classroom.

By the time they are seniors, most (77%) Brown students report that their experience at Brown has helped them with “communicating well orally” (Brown senior survey). However, albeit a minority, some students report few gains in this area, and participation is a key component of the Brown student experience. Because of recent attention to questions of student participation, we have compiled some evidence-based strategies to support participation in your course.

At the beginning of a course

Articulate why student verbal contributions to class are important: Sociologist Jay Howard (2015) researched talkers’ and non-talkers’ rationales for their levels of participation. Frequent participants were significantly more likely to report that students are responsible for contributing to class, while less frequent participants attributed the responsibility to professors. On the first days of class, Howard suggests having a discussion about discussion, in order to make clear the critical role students play in the activity: What were good and bad discussion experiences that students have had? What did the instructor do? What did students do? (Although tailored to discussion-oriented classrooms, this exercise could be adapted for other types of participation, or courses generally.)

Develop norms or guidelines for participation: If you are teaching a participation-based class, co-generated guidelines can be extremely helpful for establishing the type of participation you wish to foster in your classroom and reminding students of this as the term progresses. One possibility is to have each student write a concern about the discussion on a notecard, shuffle (or group) the cards, hand them back, then have students develop guidelines that address these concerns (Fox, 2001). Guidelines can also be created by the instructor and distributed. Sample guidelines for STEM, language, and discussion-based classes can be found here.

Articulate how student participation will be evaluated in your course: While we often think of verbal contributions as the basis of class participation, there are multiple, flexible ways for students to participate and contribute. For example, based on her research about silent students, composition instructor Mary Reda (2009) concludes that “we also need to be open to the possibility that the decision to be silent is a legitimate, reasoned one,” and she emphasizes listening, writing, and contemplative activity in class -- along with speaking. Participating in pair or small group activities, active listening, and inviting others to speak can also be valuable contributions to the class. If students will be graded or evaluated on their participation in the course, outlining expectations for participation on the syllabus can help students to meet them.

During the term

Emphasize your approachability: Students who feel comfortable with their instructor are more likely to participate in the classroom and to approach you when they are experiencing difficulties participating in the course (Roberts & Friedman, 2013). Instructors can emphasize their approachability by encouraging students to make use of office hours and by giving examples of ways students might use this time with you productively (Weaver & Qi, 2005). Arriving to class a few minutes early and leaving a few minutes late is another way to signal to students that you are approachable and interested in speaking with them outside of official class time.   

Address reasons for non-participation: When further investigating the reasons students attributed to their non-participation, Howard (2015) found gendered rationales. While men were more likely to indicate that they did not participate because they were unprepared, female students were more likely to report that they did not know enough about the subject matter and that their ideas were not well-formulated enough to verbalize. Therefore, in a diverse classroom, mitigating both of these barriers is important to build a participatory environment.

  • Lack of preparation: Based on research about why students don’t prepare for class, psychologists Kerr and Frese (2016) suggest strategies such as quick online or in-class surveys or reading diaries to prompt accountability and test comprehension, as well as asking students to send a reading question in advance.
  • Time to formulate ideas: Biologist Kim Tanner (2013) suggests that it is useful to allow processing time before inviting verbal participation. Strategies such as wait time (i.e., allowing a few seconds for students to formulate an answer) or a minute paper (i.e., allowing a few minutes for students to write down an answer) can be helpful. Approaches such as discussing ideas with a classmate or in a small group can also help students test out ideas in a lower-stakes setting before they verbalize them in front of a larger group.

It is important to note that a student who suddenly stops participating, becomes withdrawn during the course of the semester, or exhibits a significant behavioral change might be experiencing a form of distress. In such cases, speaking with the student privately can help you refer the student to appropriate support. See the CAPS website for a list of ways to refer students to their services.

Experiment with participation format and modalities:  In her research in engineering classrooms, Robin Fowler (2015) found that online (synchronous, text-based) discussions fostered more equitable discussions in group or teamwork for women and English Language Learners. Depending on pedagogical goals, it may also be helpful to consider other modalities for a student’s participation.

Invite student self-assessment of participation: Howard (2015) suggests that periodic student self-assessment of their participation can boost learning and encourage more meaningful and frequent comments. One efficient approach is to use a simple rubric for self-assessment, such as 1=did not read and participate in discussion, 2=did not read and contribute once, 3=read and contributed once, 4=read and contributed more than once. Reda’s (2009) research with less talkative but thoughtful students also suggests that this rubric could be adapted to address the level of listening and integration a student shows, e.g., did the student show active listening skills by building on a previous student’s comment?

If you would like to discuss participation dynamics in your own classroom, please contact the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning for a consultation: sheridan_center@brown.edu.

Fowler, R. (2015). Talking teams: Increased equity in participation in online compared to face-to-face team discussions. Computers in Education Journal, 6(1), 21-44

Fox, H. (2004). “When race breaks out”: Conversations about race and racism in college classrooms. New York: Peter Lang.

Gurin, P. (2000). Expert Report in the Matter of Gratz et al. v. Bollinger et al. No. 97-75321(E.D. Mich.) and No. 97-75928 (E.D. Mich.). Available: http://diversity.umich.edu/admissions/legal/expert/gurintoc.html

Howard, J. R. (2015). Discussion in the college classroom: Getting your students engaged and participating in person and online. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Kerr, M.M. & Frese, K.M. (2016): Reading to learn or learning to read? Engaging college students in course readings. College Teaching, 1-4.

Milem, J.F. (2000). The educational benefits of diversity: Evidence from multiple sectors. In M.J. Chang, D. Witt, J. Jones, & K. Hakuta, Eds. Compelling interest: Examining the evidence on racial dynamics in colleges and universities. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Reda, M. M. (2009). Between speaking and silence : A study of quiet students. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Tanner, K.D. (2013). Structure matters: Twenty-one teaching strategies to promote student engagement and cultivate classroom equity. CBE – Life Sciences Education, 12: 322-331.

Weaver, R. R. & Qi, J. (2005). Classroom organization and participation: College students’ perceptions. Journal of Higher Education, 76(5): 570-601.



Teaching Technique Spotlight: Object-based Teaching

In the Sheridan Center-RISD Museum collaborative workshop series, “Unframed Objects,” participants have the opportunity to engage with objects as teaching tools. In this interview, workshop facilitator and RISD Museum educator Jackie Delamatre (Brown ’02) discusses how object-based teaching can help students learn in your courses. (Photo courtesy of the RISD Museum, Providence, RI)

What is object-based teaching?
Object-based teaching focuses on what we can learn from objects. This could mean using objects to start conversations around ideas or concepts. It could mean using objects to practice critical thinking skills such as thorough description, extended observation, recognition of multiple possible interpretations, and group meaning making. Or it could mean using objects as the basis for research projects.

How do you approach close looking in your workshops?
In these workshops, we've tried to model the power of close looking--and not just for the average 15 to 30 seconds that most museum visitors spend in front of an object--but, in some cases, for an entire hour. What do we see when we continue to look back at an object--folding in information and others' perspectives along the way? How do our ideas evolve over this longer duration? I try to set up a format and mood in which people can feel comfortable sharing their observations--without fear of not knowing the context--and in which people can build on each other's ideas. I ask follow-up questions that press participants to back up interpretations with evidence or expand the observations and interpretations they offer. Then, I carefully select information about the object, its context, or its maker that I think will help us deepen our interpretations. Of late, I have also tried to incorporate some narrative drive into the discussion. What story about the object or maker can draw us in emotionally to inspire us to look and think for longer?

How can instructors incorporate object-based teaching in their courses?
There are so many exciting options. If you are just starting to consider objects as an option, it might be useful to think of them as a type of text. Bringing students to look at The Landing of Roger Williams in the RISD Museum, for instance, is an opportunity to explore nineteenth-century perspectives on colonial history the same way that reading nineteenth-century histories of colonial America could be. Students could be encouraged to explore the perspective of the artist on the event versus accounts (in the form of artwork or texts) from the time period when the event took place.

Of course, many fields use objects and material culture in their research regularly--from Greek sculpture to nineteenth-century photographs to contemporary advertisements. Anthropology, archaeology, and art history are the most obvious fields, but there are many others in which academics use visual objects in their research but don't necessarily bring them into their teaching.

In a broader sense, teaching with objects does not have to be bound to subject matter. As I mentioned above, objects (even those not related specifically to a class's subject matter) can be used to practice critical thinking skills that transfer over to subject-matter specific analysis of texts or objects. Language studies departments often use conversations around objects to practice and expand language skills.

Then there is the even broader sense: We are helping to shape students to be members of a society in which material culture overwhelms us on a daily basis. How can we help students unpack the visual objects--photographs, commercial products, architecture--all around us so that they can become more observant, more critical citizens of our world?