Enhancing Student Participation

This guest post is part of a series linked to the publication of G. Pleschova & A. Simon (eds.) Learning to teach in central Europe: Reflections from early career researchers. This post comes from Sarah Holz.

As a teacher who aspires to student-centered learning, increasing student class participation and involvement in seminars is a central concern for me. Reading Michal Tkaczyk’s book chapter offered some insightful and thought provoking ideas for me because the chapter addresses the question in how far enhanced student participation, interest in the subject matter, and the acquisition of key concepts are linked.

In his chapter, which is part of the newly released online book Early Career Academics’ Reflections on Learning to Teach in Central Europe edited by Gabriela Pleschová and Agnes Simon, Michal Tkaczyk offers insights into the findings from a teaching innovation introduced in a seminar on semiotic analysis of media contents. The innovation aimed at (1) improving student knowledge-acquisition, (2) enhancing their skills to apply key concepts of semiotic analysis and (3) promoting student participation.

When Tkaczyk had taught the seminar in previous semesters, his first session had usually comprised of a mini-lecture, followed by group presentations in the second session. To innovate, Tkaczyk introduced small group work in the first session: based on the reading, students had to arrange cut-ups in a concept map. Thereafter, students placed the cut-ups in a topic map.

The assessment of the impact of the innovation was done using a minute paper written by students after each session, marked by the instructor, and a short survey and course evaluations filled out by the students. Tkaczyk was in the fortunate position to teach the seminar in two parallel groups, he could therefore implement a control-group design and measure the impact immediately.

Another advantage of teaching in parallel was that the readings for control and treatment group were the same, as were external factors such as news and current affairs that could have impacted the seminar. These conditions are typically not present when innovations are introduced in subsequent semesters.

Based on the three assessment instruments, Tkaczyk’s findings show that small group work enhanced student knowledge acquisition and comprehension significantly. Nevertheless the innovation neither resulted in students expressing more interest in the subject matter nor in their increased participation. These findings are instructive because they suggest that the link between knowledge acquisition, interest and participation is more complex than generally expected.

The presentation and discussion of the innovation could possibly be strengthened by explaining how assessment criteria such as ‘increased student interest’ or ‘learning more’ were operationalized. This could be done by presenting the criteria students were given to assess the impact of the innovation, the minute paper topics and the exact survey questions.

Tkaczyk’s study is valuable because it encourages further exploration of a range of factors that might impact the complex relationship between student interest, knowledge acquisition and class participation. Tkaczyk aptly suggests that a determining factor might be the academic disposition of a student. This means that teaching innovations that aim to enhance student interest in the subject matter and student participation might positively influence those students who consider the respective course central to their studies, but far less those students who believe the course is peripheral to their interests. Tkaczyk’s insights can be carried even further by asking what effect such innovations have on student academic performance, which is definitely another issue worth exploring.