4.7. Promoting Student Participation

Using Writing as a Tool for Promoting Student Participation

Two questions TAs often have are:

  1. How to figure out (quickly) what students know and what they need help with?
  2. How to get students to participate in class, especially in class discussions?

There are a number of techniques for addressing these concerns. Here are a few possibilities. These are most useful for TAs who lead discussion sections, but can also be adapted by other TAs for use during office hours, review sessions, etc.

  • Use between class writing as a starting point for a discussion. Have students work problems or write about assigned reading, and then start by asking students to share the most important idea(s) from their writing.
  • Use beginning of class unstructured writing to generate thoughts on a topic. At the beginning of a new topic ask students to brainstorm about a problem, list words associated with a concept, draw a graph that shows how certain concepts fit together, etc. Have students first write down their ideas, then ask the entire class for input. This will help you understand what students' background on a topic is, where possible misconceptions or conceptual gaps may be, etc.
  • Use beginning of class writing to generate topics for a class. For example, ask students at the beginning of class to write down and submit the questions they are most interested in. Then gather the questions, and select ones to answer. In selecting questions, answer the ones that you think are most important and of interest to the most students; you can also invite students whose questions were not answered to see you in office hours if your wish, or you can post answers to the class web page.
  • Use short writing as a means for students to gather thoughts before a discussion. Some students are hesitant to participate in class discussion until they have had time to reflect. Pose a discussion question, have students write on it informally and on their own for a minute, and then ask for responses.
  • Have people discuss a problem as a group and then write a succinct answer that everyone in the group understands and agrees with. You can collect the answers if you wish to assess peoples' understanding.
  • Use short writing as an end of class quick summary. This is an often-used technique and has a number of variants. One asks students to list the most important concepts they learned in class that day, as well as any questions they have. Another variant is to have students identify the "murkiest" point from the class. You can address these areas of confusion outside of class, e.g., on the class web page, or in a future class.