Hands up! How We Increase (Or Decrease) Student Participation

We design courses with many opportunities for students to learn by completing assignments, readings and answering questions in class. But does our teaching increase such behaviours or decrease them?

One lens, psychology of learning, suggests we likely do both. B. F. Skinners’ operant conditioning suggests that how we respond to student behavior can either increase (reinforce) or decrease (punish) our students actions including participating in class discussion or completing homework.

What is Operant conditioning?

As Thorndike’s Law of Effect and B.F. Skinner’s operant conditioning note we are influenced by the consequences of our actions. Good consequences encourage more of this activity, while unpleasant (or unhelpful) consequences encourage less of this activity.

Reinforcement increases the frequency of behaviours through either the addition of a pleasant stimulus (positive reinforcement) or the removal of an unpleasant stimulus (Negative reinforcement).

Punishment” decreases the frequency of valued behaviours through either the addition of an unpleasant stimulus (positive punishment) or the removal of an unpleasant stimulus (negative punishment).

What about Encouraging students to answer questions in class:

Hands up! How We Increase (Or Decrease) Students Answering QuestionsWe might beneficially use punishment to decrease of disruptive behaviours such as disruptive side conversations, interrupting classmates, or answering cell phones by adding the unpleasantness of awkwardness when we stand near by, interrupt to redirect conversation, or let silence fall during the phone call.

Our effect may also be neutral leading to attenuation where the lack of a reward results in decreased responses, including when an instructor neither confirms or discounts the response and simply says “next” until they have 3 responses regardless of correctness.

Over time, behaviours do not need to be (and should not be) actively reinforced each time to maintain higher participation or lower skipping class (see information on schedules and fixed versus variable intervals and ratios).


Try seeing how the number of students’ answers increases (or decreases) with different responses. Predict via the lens of operant conditioning. For example:

  • What happens if I ask questions that are too easy? -> Students likely not rewarded by answering.
  • What happens if I ask questions that are too hard? ->Students might not be able to answer and receive the explicit or implicit feedback that they are wrong.
  • What happens if I present my answer(s) on a slide after I ask them? Students might not be rewarded by answering
  • But what if I skim by pointing out all the parts they identified and building on their answer? -> Students might be rewarded and increase participation.
  • What if I summarize the readings? -> Students who read now have the frustration of listening again and having “wasted time” while students who did not read are reinforced that their decision was correct.
  • What if I have them pull out the readings or use a specific page or section for an activity -> Students who read ware rewarded by not having to quickly skim, students who did not read might experience uncertainty or struggle.

Applying operant conditioning is not about “coddling” or saying “good try” without correcting flawed knowledge, but creating a learning experience that is encouraging of participation, reading and incorporating feedback into later performance. Even when a students’ answer is incorrect there are ways to reward behaviours that lead to improvement (e.g., asking questions) and provide feedback to modify that knowledge by “rewarding” the correct bits, “punishing” incorrect parts, and because we can speak better than pigeons, suggesting how to improve.

While it is useful to be cognizant of how our actions may act to encourage or discourage specific student behaviours, self-determination is still valued and people may not want themselves or others to be treated as treating people like lab rats such as by Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory:


Tools and Strategies for “Hot Topics”- Part 3 of 3

After the difficult conversation or incident in class

I regularly use formative feed-back in my class—feedback that is solicited over the course of a term, allowing me to measure student progress, highlighting concepts that are still unclear, and to hear from the students about what is and is not creating an effective learning environment. The formative feedback tool below is new to me, and will be very helpful in determining if and how the difficult topics are addressed in class were ultimately beneficial, or that they require follow-up.

The Critical Incident Questionnaire

At the end of the day (or week, or unit, or other appropriate time period), set aside 10 minutes for the class to respond, in writing, to a few specific questions.  (This may be especially helpful to do when a class session has been particularly difficult or tense).

  • At what moment were you most engaged as a learner?
  • At what moment were you most distanced as a learner?
  • What action that anyone in the room took did you find most affirming or helpful?
  • What action that anyone in the room took did you find most puzzling or confusing?
  • What surprised you most?

Keep all of the responses anonymous, and collect them at the end of the class.  Read and analyze the responses, and compile them according to similar themes and concerns.  Most important is that you report back to the group at the next meeting, and allow time for comments and discussion. (Borrowed from Vanderbilt University)

If properly prepared, you will actually find that the difficult topics and discussions allow a class to dig deeply into an issue, example, or situation that can take us beyond classroom readings and into ‘real world’ contexts, making learning even more meaningful, relevant, and transformative.

Tools and Strategies for ‘Hot Topics’ – Part 2 of 3

During Class

A favorite strategy of mine has long been the “oops” and “ouch” strategy. I’m fairly certain I encountered it at a conference, but an Internet search doesn’t reveal who first developed the strategy.

In English slang, the word “ouch” means “that hurt me.” The word “oops” means, “I made a mistake” (I like to define these terms in class, in case they are not familiar to some students).

In the “The Oops and Ouch” strategy, students can express themselves in two ways. If they feel uncomfortable with something that has been said in a class or a conversation, saying “ouch” alerts their peer(s) (or instructor) that what they’ve said has hurt, offended, or angered someone, and that the original speaker needs to think about the impact their words have had. Students who have heard another person’s “ouch,” can respond with “oops,” communicating that they didn’t mean harm and/or that they’d like to think about and reword what they’ve said. During the “oops” stage, the “oops” student needs to ask genuinely curious questions to help them understand. Such a question might be, “How was what I said hurtful or offensive to you?” This opens up a constructive dialogue, and students continuously learn to see concepts and issues through a new perspective.  This strategy is one that you may want to introduce when you are co-creating your guides of conduct on your first day of class (see Part One).

Another strategy is to take the conversation away from the individuals. Sometimes it is necessary to draw the conversation away from individuals, and redirect attention toward a broader perspective, particularly if a student expresses a thought or opinion that is reflective of a more systemic myth, misconception, or belief. If a student makes a controversial statement that raises objections from other students, the original student’s statement can be more generalized by re-casting it as: “There are many people feel this way. Why do you think this is?” Then we can ask, “Many people also disagree—why do you think this is?

The Center for Research on Teaching and Learning (CRTL), University of Michigan, provides an amazing selection of resources for anticipating, facilitating, and responding to difficult discussions and moments, as well as classroom incivility:

I strongly recommend visiting each of the aforementioned links.

Tools and Strategies for ‘Hot Topics’ – Part 1 of 3

Before Class

Regardless of the discipline in which you teach, undoubtedly you have encountered comments or topics in your classroom that have been opinion-/value- and/or emotion-laden. In those moments perhaps your heart quickened and you felt panicked trying to decide what to do. In this three-part series, we’re going to explore some possible tools and strategies for managing “hot topics” in the classroom.

Whether you have planned to address or discuss a controversial topic in your class, or whether you just know from experience that incendiary comments can emerge with seemingly no provocation, the one advantage you have is that you have time to plan ahead.

Imagine our weather this past couple of weeks. Two weeks ago, I was walking barefoot in a field with my dogs. Last week, I had to pull out my parka and big winter boots. I had boots, coats, hats, and gloves at the ready, even though I didn’t know when winter would first hit. As a result, I was able to be properly dressed, and even though the weather turned lousy, I was warm and reasonably comfortable. We must equally prepare ourselves for how we will manage classroom comments and discussions that warn of, or become ‘stormy.’ Adequately prepared, we will be able to ensure that discussions are safe and constructive learning experiences for everyone in the classroom. And having planned ahead, we will feel confident in our abilities to do so.

The first way you can prepare is to think about your course content and activities. Even before you set foot in the classroom, identify which topics might elicit emotional or confrontational responses from the students. Imagine what strategies you will use. Think about how you feel and what you believe so that you are mindful of your own possible biases. What comments might you anticipate? Where might students lack the knowledge or experience to make informed arguments? How will you prepare these students? Being prepared beforehand significantly lessens the chance that you will feel flustered and unsure what to do when the moment arises.

The second strategy is one that many are familiar with, but few of us actually get around to implementing. Creating guides for conduct on the first day of class establishes the tenor, mutual respect, and civility needed in a safe classroom. Conduct guides co-created with the students are typically most effective, although you may include some non-negotiable items. Some of these might include:

  • Always use a respectful tone.
  • No interrupting or yelling.
  • No name-calling or other character attacks.
  • Ask questions when you do not understand; do not assume you know what others are thinking.
  • Try to see the issue from the other person’s perspective before stating your opinion.
  • Maintain confidentiality (what is said in the classroom stays in the classroom.)

(The above is borrowed from Vanderbilt University)

One last thing you can do in advance is to familiarize yourself with the ‘in-the-moment’ strategies discussed in Part Two of this series, which includes the “Oops and Ouch” strategy. Watch for it next week.

Open Pedagogy: Using OER to change how we teach

There has been a considerable increase in the number of courses assigning open rather than commercial textbooks at the University of Saskatchewan.  During the 2014-2015 academic year, there were approximately 300 students enrolled in three courses using open textbooks. This year more than 2,650 students are enrolled in the at least 20 courses that have open textbooks as the assigned resource. Since the university started promoting and tracking the use of open textbooks in 2014, this use has resulted in students at the U of S saving close to $400,000 on textbook costs.

The benefits of using open textbooks and other open educational resources (OER) instead of commercial texts aren’t limited to the cost savings for students, however. The lack of copyright restrictions on OER allows instructors to modify these materials to meet the specific needs of their courses. For example, the Edwards School of Business recently released an adaption of an open book from the United States that not only saved their students money, but also meets the learning needs of the students better than the original edition. University Success will be used by the more than 475 students in the course, but also students at other institutions, and other instructors will be free to make their own changes to this resource to better meet local needs.

Just as instructors are able to adapt existing OER, so are students. Learners can become contributors to existing open materials, or use OER to create new learning materials for themselves, their peers, and future learners (and instructors).

John Kleefeld, a professor in the U of S College of Law, created an assignment that offers students in his The Art of Judgement course the chance to improve Wikipedia articles on one of the topics covered in the course. Professor Kleefeld and one of those students, Katelyn Rattray wrote an article on the design of the assignment and the experience that was published the Journal of Legal Education.

Robin DeRosa from Plymouth State University in New Hampshire created an open textbook for her early American literature course by having undergraduate research assistants find appropriate public domain content. As a core assignment in the class, students then wrote introductions for each reading based on their research about the authors and time periods.  While she served as the editor, students did much of the research and compiling of content for this new open textbook. This assignment replaced a traditional paper that would have only been seen by the instructor and the student and likely soon after marking, discarded by the student. Read more about this process on her blog.

Moving away from private “throw away” assignments can shift student activity away from knowledge consumption instead developing their skills in knowledge creation.  In the examples above and many others, this lead to increased student engagement, improved learning outcomes, and freed instructors from reading the same assignments repeatedly.

If you would like to learn more about open pedagogy, the GMCTE is offering a session on November 8 as part of our Introduction to Learning Technologies series.  You can also contact the GMCTE directly with any questions or to schedule a consultation.

Why Google Can’t Replace Good Teaching

The internet contains more facts, pictures and formulas than any human mind, yet we do not see it as “smart” and it can sometimes feel like we are stumbling in a jungle. Last year’s estimate placed it at 136 billion pieces of 8×11 paper and there are more pages now. In its amazing stack of human content, there are thousands of pages on each statistical test, recent political event, written work and human experience. No shortage of information. But “knowing” requires more than access to or repeating of stacks of information.

What separates a novice from an expert is the richness of details, meaningful connections, identification of significant features that differentiate and inform, and the overall complex organizational structure that tells us the relative importance of a given fact, the other relevant factors, and thus what page to choose among the thousands. Just watch a students’ first literature search (or walk through the library stacks), or my online search yesterday about downspout options.


Picture via Flickr by Fly under a CC-BY license.

Guided development of expertise, and having someone who “knows” describe the overall framework, highlight key features and reveal the decision making process is what is missing when we simply load a browser and hit search.

In order to be more to our students, than the internet or any repository of facts could be, good teaching is about modeling and build such expertise that shapes the essential ways of thinking and seeing the world that are the core of our disciplines.

We, as experts, teaching novices have the challenge of making what comes naturally to us as our usual mode of transportation, explicit, tangible, and possible for our students who are novices in our disciplines. How?

  • Model the process of decision-making and analysis as explicitly as you can. Practice and ask a colleague from outside your discipline (or one of us in the GMCTE) to listen and ask why.
  • Highlight the key distinguishing features, where you see them in the example, what they relate to, how you make sense of them, and what you now know and thus can decide or do.
  • Show the overall framework of the area with its many connections, and refer to both the framework and the connections across specific topics, facts, authors, images, formulas, approaches, time periods and more.
  • Draw on their own expertise and help link new material with existing connections by asking them to create their own maps, lists of steps or mnemonics

Resources on Novice & Expert

Academic Resource Centre, Duke University, Experts vs. Novices: What Students Struggle with Most in STEM Disciplines (summary) http://arc.duke.edu/documents/Experts%20vs%20Novices_STEMcourses.pdf

Ambrose, S., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching.   Chapter 2: How does the way students organize knowledge affect their learning? (pp. 40-65). San Francisco, CA.: Jossey-Bass.

Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., & Cocking, R.R. (2004). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School. Washington D.C.: National Academy of Sciences.

Using Forums Effectively: Ways to improve engagement

By Katharine Horne

This post originally appeared on the University of Sussex Technology Enhanced Learning Blog. It is being republished here with permission.

In a Virtual Learning Environment such as Study Direct (Moodle), forums can be a great way to share course information, build community and allow students to easily share resources and ideas.

Last year our post The benefits of lurking in higher education explored the ways in which learners engage with forums.

However, often these forums can seem quite sparse and neglected. So how can we encourage students to actively engage with forums? Below are a few key tips to help you make the most of the forums in your modules.

Set out clear expectations

It is important to set out clear expectations at the beginning of the module, both expectations that you have of students as well as what students can expect from you. Make it clear how often you would like students to contribute to the forum as well as your commitment to monitor the forum and respond to queries and requests. Be sure to set out clear instructions and guidelines in the description of your forum. In these instructions you might also want to ask students to read previous posts before asking a question to check if their question has already been answered. Also encourage students to give threads clear titles so that information can be found easily. This will avoid you having to write the same response numerous time, and might even cut down the number of questions you receive by email!

Set specific tasks


flickr photo by tecabh shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Focussed tasks give students more reason to write a forum post. You could set exercises in seminars and lectures that involve students reflecting on the week or finding an interesting journal article or news item and sharing it with the group.

This could also be an opportunity for students to work in pairs or study groups, for example completing peer review exercises, something that again may encourage students to engage with forums whilst building a sense of community among the cohort. You could start off by asking students to introduce themselves to the group, this helps students get used to using the forum and alerts them to where it is positioned on the site.

Consider separate forums

You may want to think about creating separate forums for different functions, for example one forum to deal with general requests around admin issues and one for topic discussions. However, be careful not to overpopulate your module site with too many forums.

Consider group size

You may want to consider the number of students that have subscribed to a forum. If your lecture size is 500 and all students are actively engaging, this would make for a very busy forum! In this case, splitting your students up into smaller groups, perhaps seminar groups, would be a better option. At the same time, a group of five or six would probably result in less interaction as the group is so small. Think carefully about what would work best for your students. See this Study Direct FAQ – How do I set up groups? – if you would like help setting up groups in your module site.

Add a first post

A blank canvas can be quite daunting, it may be a good idea to add the first post on your forum yourself. This could be an introduction and welcome to the course or an ice breaker activity for students to complete perhaps asking them to explain their interest in the module.

Remind students

Remind students throughout the module to continue their contributions to the forum. A small reminder in your lecture slides or during seminars might be useful as will the specific forum tasks and activities mentioned above.

Encourage commenting


flickr photo by jamespia shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

Forums are about building interaction between students. You can encourage this by getting students to not only author posts but also comment on others’ posts, building a dialogue between students. You might also want to encourage students who ask particular (non-personal) questions via email to add these to the forum so that other students can benefit from the answers.

In Study Direct, the University of Sussex’s Virtual Learning Environment, there are four different forum types to choose from:

  • A single simple discussion – this forum type allows for one topic to be discussed and appears on a single page, this is useful for short discussions that are focussed around a single topic
  • Standard forum for general use – this is the most appropriate for a general purpose forum and allows both students and tutors to post a new topic at anytime
  • Each person post one discussion – each person subscribed to the forum can post one new discussion topic which everyone can then reply to, this could be used for example to ask each student to reflect on the week’s topic
  • Q and A Forum – this forum type requires students to create their own post before being able to view other students’ posts, after they have added their post students can then review and respond to other posts

Forums can be a positive way of developing a dialogue, creating community and allowing students to reflect and feedback. Furthermore, forums are a useful way of turning your module site from a passive to an active environment and have the added benefit of reducing the number of emails you receive from students! If you would like further help with using forums please contact your school’s Learning Technologist or email tel@sussex.ac.uk.

Ideas about Assessing Student Participation

Recently we completed another Instructional Skills Workshop (ISW) at our Centre.  This an intensive and engaging 4-day workshop where faculty and instructors learn about and practice participatory learning strategies, and upon completion, receive a certificate of completion that is nationally recognized.

As the workshop unfolds, important questions are brought forward by participants.   Given our focus on student participation in the ISW, the question of how to (and whether to) give participation marks arises.  While the answers depend on the context of the course, the teaching approach, and the design of the learning experiences and assessments, specific ideas from others can help us arrive at ways of doing this that can fit our individual teaching.

So, when I came upon a link to this blog post by David Gooblar –  I thought it was worth highlighting to our recent ISW graduates, and to readers of Educatus.

In particular Gooblar links to an article by Tony Docan-Morgan that includes a participation log template that can be found here.

We would welcome more ideas from our readers on this teaching topic.

Coffee and Icebergs: Analogies, Metaphors, and Stories in Teaching Tough Concepts

coffee steam 2Nancy Turner, GMCTE Director, recently came across an intriguing resource on an Australian listserve called the Chemistry Pedagogical Content Knowledge Project. This site had been developed through a large qualitative research project and this specific resource is for Chemistry. She shared it with me, and after exploring it, I was inspired by its contents. It also made me wonder if there were similar resources for other disciplines.

This resource is described on the site in this way:

Pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) encompasses carefully selected analogies, examples, explanations and demonstrations used by a teacher to make a topic comprehensible to students. (ChemPCK)

In other words, it contains specific lesson and teaching ideas that are organized by Chemistry Topic and also by Strategy Type. The goal of each lesson idea is to help students easily make connections between the specific Chemistry content and materials/experiences that they are familiar with from their everyday lives.

For example, one of the Strategy Types that you can choose is “Analogies and Metaphors”. If you select this strategy, there are 14 different suggested analogies and metaphors to use when teaching variety of topics.

Here is an example for teaching Thermodynamics:

Which has a higher internal energy – a ‘nearly boiling’ hot cup of coffee or an iceberg? This is the ‘q vs T paradox’. The mass of the iceberg is greater so it has a higher internal energy despite being colder. Ask students to explain what happens when you place the cup of coffee onto the surface of the iceberg – why doesn’t heat flow from the iceberg to the coffee to make it boil? The discussion of why heat dissipates from hot to cold is useful in reinforcing the role of entropy. (ChemPCK)

Here is another (simpler) example for Electronic Structure:

Use an analogy for filling orbitals, such as climbing up a ladder or building a house from the bottom up. (ChemPCK).

On one hand, students often struggle with understanding obscure scientific terms and concepts. On the other hand, instructors often struggle with clearly conveying these concepts to students. A resource like this can help on both of these fronts (Although, it is important that you and the students can recognize the limitations of the metaphors).

Do you have a favourite metaphor or analogy that you use in teaching? Do you know of similar resources for other disciplines? Would you like to contribute to a similar resource? Please, comment below or send us an email!

Photo courtesy of waferboard under a CC-By license.

Building Capacity for Effective Group Work

By Megan Marcoux, Student Employment and Career Centre

A session on this topic will be held during the Fall Fortnight on Monday August 22, 2016 from 1 – 4 PM. Register here.

Over the past several years, the Student Employment and Career Centre (SECC) has had the opportunity to expand its in-house offerings to support teaching and learning in classrooms across campus. The work has leveraged tools like the StrengthsFinder and Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) to give groups of students the opportunity to enhance their self-awareness and deepen their competency development in the classroom. One student competency that has been focused on and developed with great success is the ability to work more effectively in teams, which is not only included in the learning outcomes associated with the Learning Goals of the U of S Learning Charter, but also in the Career Readiness Competencies outlined by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). These documents highlight the necessity of effective group work for success in both learning and the world of work.

The StrengthsFinder is a 177-item assessment based on positive psychology that supports individuals in identifying their most natural ways of thinking, feeling and behaving (i.e., their raw talents). Assessment results provide an outline and descriptions of an individual’s Top 5 Talent Themes (out of a possible 34), which have the potential to “serve as the foundation of strengths development” (Gallup, 2014). Reports for the assessment include a Signature Themes Report, which provides general outlines for each of the Top 5, as well as an Insight and Action-Planning Guide, which weaves together all five themes to produce unique descriptions for each and outlines steps for strengths develop.

While the StrengthsFinder helps students identify their raw talents and develop them into strengths, the MBTI supports students in better understanding their personality through measuring four pairs of opposing preferences. These preferences speak to how individuals prefer to focus their attention (i.e. Introversion or Extraversion), take in information (i.e. Sensing or Intuition), make decisions (i.e. Thinking or Feeling), and deal with the world around them (i.e. Judging or Perceiving). This assessment has a longstanding history of supporting team development through enhancing people’s understanding of their own and others’ preferences for communication, work styles, etc.

From first-year Arts and Science classrooms to a fourth-year Nutrition capstone course, ESB classrooms to Grad Studies courses, the SECC has had opportunities to work with instructors and incorporate the assessments into a variety of course curricula. Through interactive workshops, students are able to further understand the theory and language behind the assessments, reflect on their results, and engage with their peers to understand how their strengths/personality can be supported and leveraged to maximize their learning and development, both in the classroom and beyond.