“Yes, and…”: Encouraging Students to Talk in Class

One of the key rules of improv comedy is that of ‘yes, and…’  This means that you have to accept the scene as it is laid out, and then add to it. You are never supposed to deny the scene or whatever element that another player has added, but instead to accept and respond to their contribution and then add your own. Denying the scene leads to the end of the act.

This rule, when applied to the classroom, can be an effective device for encouraging students to speak during discussion.  Students need encouragement: they need to be made to feel that their contributions matter, or they will stop contributing. We may be looking for particular answers when we pose a question, but if we make our students feel that their contributions are not correct or welcome, then they will leave the scene.

“Yes, and…” in the classroom, then, means always responding positively to a student comment, even when it is objectively wrong.  It doesn’t always mean using these specific words, but it does mean showing appreciation and value for the act of participating, and then doing something with the contribution they have made. It also means avoiding ‘no, that’s wrong’ and ‘yes, but…’ type responses. Let’s break this down into its two parts:

Yes: Accepting the comment

For a correct answer, this may be as simple as saying ‘yes!’ ‘perfect!’ ‘exactly right’.  For an answer that’s partly right, or dancing around the correct answer, a response might be ‘good–that’s one piece of the puzzle’ or ‘X, you have put us on the right path’.  Perhaps restate what they said in slightly more complete terms, and then ask them if that’s a fair restatement of what they said, and wait for a nod.  For a completely off the wall or wrong answer, but a sincere attempt (that is, not someone trying to be disruptive in some way), you can respond with a simple but genuine ‘thanks’, and then ask what others think.  That can also be an opportunity to get other students to critique the answers instead of you.

, and…

Students often stop listening when their peers start talking.  This means that insights that originate from the students are often completely missed by others.  In the ‘and…’ part of the response, the goal is to repeat or rephrase the conversation and then move it forward. You might do this after each comment, or after several contributions, or at the end of the class–it depends on the flow of the conversation and how much control you like to keep over discussion.  Rephrasing can be a great way to cut off that student who keeps talking long after their point is made: wait for a breath and then say ‘so X, I think you are trying to say YYY, is that correct?’  Even a comment that is not quite on target can be reframed as a piece of the puzzle that the students can continue to build on.  The key here is, having accepted the student’s point, tie it into the conversation somehow.  Do not simply acknowledge it and move on to the next person without comment.

These kinds of techniques help create a supportive environment where student fears of looking stupid are reduced, and they are made to feel that their contribution matters. And such contributions DO matter–they can form the fabric of the class discussion, as long as there is someone there to help weave all the different strands together.

Dealing with the Know-it-Alls (aka, the Hermione Monsters)

We all know this student.  They are both the savior and bane of our classroom–the student we can count on to participate and break the dreaded silence from the sea of confused or uncertain faces….and the student who we can count on to participate at just the wrong moment, or speaks constantly and at length, or dominate any discussion or activity without regard for the opinions or ideas of their peers.

I know this particular breed of student quite well, as I used to look at her in the mirror all the time. Of course, back when I was a student, I thought of myself as the savior, not the bane.  It was only upon great reflection, particularly once I started studying teaching, that I recognized the monster I had been.  Traits of this particular example of the breed included:

–trying to answer the teacher’s question before it was even fully expressed;

–speaking anywhere from 3-5x as often as any other student in the room;

–not understanding when the professor would ignore a raised hand or call on students who raised their hands after mine;

–seeing oneself as the valiant knight, rescuing the teacher from the ignorance and stupidity (always those, never shyness or uncertainty or boredom) of one’s fellow classmates;

–going to office hours not to clear up matters of confusion but to prove to the professor how smart I was.

I really should write a formal apology to all of my college professors.  I was what I now call a “Hermione Monster”–taken of course from that most beloved of know-it-alls, Hermione Granger of Harry Potter fame*.  And while I would not describe myself as cured, my self-awareness at least allows me to attempt to control my behavior–I can restrain my tendencies to talk a lot and at great length in meetings–and I can try to spot the HMs in my classroom, contain them, and help them build a tolerance and respect for the process and contributions of their peers. This is not an easy thing to do.  Any attempt to dampen their enthusiasm for speaking can result in them feeling like they or their contributions are not valued, that the professor ‘hates’ them, or that they are being punished.  The goal is to preserve the HMs as valuable members of the class while constraining them and showing the other students that you are acting on what is frequently an upspoken problem in the classroom.

I’m eager to hear of how others approach this problem.  Here are a few of my tips:

–Use a formal system of acknowledgement for discussion.  HMs can easily dominate discussion when its a free-for-all. Insist that everyone raise hands or placards, or take a speaker’s list.  You can use the conch rule from Lord of the Flies, with students passing it to each other to talk, or adopt the inquiry/query finger rule, or require time limits on participants like a 60 second rule/5 minutes before speaking again.  The key is to have a system, and not to leave it entirely up to the HM to self-regulate.

–Adopt think-pair-share type activities regularly in the classroom.  The HM is often a quick processor, and thus is the first to have an answer ready to a question.  Many other students need a few moments to think and reflect on the question before feeling ready to offer their opinion.  Using an activity that requires every student to put their thoughts down on paper and share them before returning to the large group means that you should be able to call on the opinions of anyone in the class without them feeling singled out.

–Talk to the student directly, and run with the narrative of savior.  After class, pull the HM aside and tell them that you’ve noticed how quick they are with answers, and what a boon that is to the class.  Acknowledge that their peers are not as quick to respond–they’ve already noticed this–and ask for their cooperation in helping the rest of the class by giving their peers the opportunity to think of the answer before the HM voices it.  You can even work out a signal of kinds–the HM raises their hand, you acknowledge it but with a gesture tell them to put their hand down to wait for others to start the conversation.  This lets the HM know that you see their desire to contribute, and moreover, that they know the answer, while giving the class the opportunity to think through the question without someone doing the work for them.

–Identify the other students in the class that generally know the answers but for whatever reason don’t feel the need or desire to jump into the discussion quickly or regularly.  Usually the first exam or paper or online discussion forums (if used) will reveal these students.  Try to cultivate these students so that you have others to call on when the HM’s hand shoots up.  In groupwork or activities, try to put some of these people on the same team/group as the HM to balance them out, particularly if the HM is of the loud but incorrect type.  If roles get assigned, try to have someone other than the HM be the spokesperson.

–Use your words.  Gently correct the behavior as it happens with phrases like “Thanks, HM.  I see your hand, but we just heard from you, so let’s try to round up some other thoughts before we check in with you again.”  Also try: “Does everyone agree with HM on that point?  Yes?  Okay–Student, tell me what you think was the best part of HM’s argument.”

What do you do to control the Hermione Monsters in your classes?

*Unlike many HMs, Hermione Granger’s behavior is ultimately exonerated by the author, as her esoteric and frequently offered knowledge base becomes essential to Harry Potter’s fight against Voldemort.  Few of our students will have the same opportunity to validate their HM tendencies in front of all their peers and professors, but that does not mean they won’t try.

Teaching Failure

Everyone should check out this fascinating piece on Inside Higher Ed, about how to help students learn from failure.  The instructor reserves 5% of the final grade for ‘quality of failure’, assessed by a reflective essay at the end of the course.  Students are encouraged throughout the course to try out new ideas and to fail spectacularly, and to use those moments as learning tools for the entire class.

I love this idea.  Like many of us, I struggle with getting students who feel like they don’t know anything to participate in class.  My way around it has been to find ways to teach political concepts through individual experiences, pop culture, movies, and books and to create a comfort zone for discussion and to help students see the connections of politics to their real lives.  This is easier in some courses (like methods) than others.  For content-heavy courses, we still have to deal with the actual content, and getting students to feel comfortable engaging with ideas they do not quite understand can be rough.  Creating an environment where failure is institutionalized and rewarded sounds like a great way to overcome some of these problems.

The new semester started yesterday and in 25 minutes my first methods class meets.  I am sorely tempted to reserve part of their participation grade for this ‘quality of failure’ idea.  Its certainly a risk.  But as the author of the piece says, modeling failure ourselves through our teaching choices can be rewarding to the students, so perhaps this is a risk that will work out regardless of how it goes…

Online Educational Games: Natural Disaster Preparation with ‘Stop Disasters’

I came across a neat online resource that compiles a bunch of online games available for educators (Chang et al, 2009).  Naturally I immediately started playing some of them, and I’ll share my findings here.

The first game is called ‘Stop Disasters’, available at www.stopdisastersgame.org.  Its a simulation of different disasters, including hurricanes, tsunamis, floods, wildfires, and earthquakes.  You act as the city planner for a particular area, and with a set budget have to decide how to prepare for a potential disaster while balancing other community needs (such as tourism or agriculture).  As you make decisions, helpful info boxes pop up to let you know how different measures make a difference. After twenty minutes, disaster strikes and you get a report on how well you met the objectives of the scenario, how many lives were lost, and whether or not you are fired from your position.  You also get a score that can be compared with other players.

The game is pretty fun.  I played through the tsunami scenario and completely messed up the first time.  I spent all my money on a seismic early warning sensor and other defenses, and not enough upgrading buildings with foundations and stilts or providing education on tsunami signs or clear evacuation procedures.  Building on high ground helps a lot, too.  The second time around was naturally easier, although 29 people still died, and I’m determined to play until everyone is saved.  Other pros of the game are that it is very easy to learn with a clean interface, it only takes 20 minutes (less if you complete your defenses early and want the disaster to happen sooner), and its available in several languages (Spanish, French, German, and Madarin (i think) in addition to English).

The downside is the problem that you know that in 20 minutes or so, disaster will strike.  Thus you have a strong incentive to build defenses.  Objectives such as ‘protecting livelihoods’ really mean ensuring that such buildings and businesses survive the disaster, rather than giving you a real choice in how you spend your money.  The game would be more useful if players had to balance keeping the economy going with disaster preparation, without a 100% chance of the disaster occurring.

Still, the game is fun and a useful way to start a discussion about why, if we know exactly what needs to be done to minimize losses during a disaster, these measures are not always taken.  Then the 100% chance of disaster becomes a starting point for the conversation, rather than defeating the point of the exercise.

This game could be used as a homework assignment in anticipation of a class on government responses to disasters, but it could also be used in-class.  The easy way would be to take the students to an electronic classroom, but it could be done in a room with internet and projector.  Simply choose your scenario ahead of time and write out their budget and the costs of all the different options on a handout.  Put the game up on the projector, put them into small groups, and give them 15 minutes to make their decisions.  Then insert the choices into the map, push the ‘start disaster’ button, and see what happens.  You can do this pretty quickly with each group and see whose plan worked best, and then discuss why.

Location is Everything

Sometimes something as simple as changing our environment can make a big difference in our teaching.  I’ve experienced this twice over this summer in two completely different ways.  First I’ve traded out (too) sunny, (too) hot St. Louis for cool and rainy London, via an exchange program at my university that allows me to teach at our campus here.  The two classes (sorry, ‘modules’) I’m offering are both repeats for me, but they have been sincere creative challenges.  Adapting to a new location required a lot of reflection on my courses and how well they would meet the needs of a different set of students.  Turns out, they required quite a bit of revision: classes here meet for four hours, not two; six weeks rather than sixteen; and Americans are the minority nationality.  Usually I find myself using American politics examples to keep my St. Louis students in familiar territory, and often have to criticize the US to generate their critical thinking skills; here, I had to avoid the too-easy American example, and found myself in the odd position of defending the US to challenge the constant critical stream from my students.  Combine this with learning new technology systems, administrative tasks, and a new campus and city, and its been as much a learning experience for me as my students.  Changing it up a bit in terms of my personal location has done wonders for reinvigorating my teaching.

For the classroom, too, it can make a difference.  Forcing the students to get up and actually move their desks may be a chore, but the physical environment does affect the way students interact in the classroom.  In  groupwork, make the students get up and move their desks so they face each other and are physically separated from other groups.  If playing a game, make them move all the chairs to the side so they can’t stay seated and thus avoid interaction.  And in discussion, sit in a circle (yes, us too) so that they are forced to talk to each other, rather than individually interacting with the professor.  Better yet, if the class is small enough, change the environment entirely and move out of the classroom.  An informal setting at a cafe, park, or study room can shock students out of the classroom norms and get them to really engage with each other.

I was lucky enough to have a small graduate class this summer, just five students after the first class.  This is a discussion-based seminar, so the next class, a sunny day, we sat outside on the campus lawn.  I drew on the back of a sheet of paper when the blackboard would have been used (later I borrowed a student’s Ipad.  I need one of those!).  From then on, we met at the cafe on campus.  The informal setting helped the students relax and they ended up talking to each other, rather than to me–and this never prevented me from taking control of the conversation as needed.  It also made asking ‘hey, what do YOU think?’ seems less of an instructor’s demand for participation than a normal, conversational request for the quiet person’s thoughts.

Magic Genie: Quick Exercise on Politics, Distribution, Decision Rules, and Deaths

I did a quick exercise with my intro IR class yesterday that reinforced a lesson on the meaning of politics and its distributive implications, showed them how decision rules matter, and served as a jumping off point for a discussion about Mueller’s arguments about the overblown nature of the terrorist threat. The exercise is very simple, and only takes about five-ten minutes.

I split students into groups of four and gave them one of the following two prompts:

Prompt One

The magic genie of Governlandia is willing to grant you one wish!  Good for you.  Unfortunately, this wish is somewhat restricted—there’s no wishing for more wishes, for one.  In fact, the only thing she’s willing to let you wish for is to permanently cure a single ailment for the world.  Here are the ailments you are allowed to cure:

Terrorism (ends all terrorist attacks permanently)

Cancer (people can still get cancer, but there is a complete and effective cure)

Bumper Cars (deaths by auto accident become a thing of the past—impacts cause no damage)

Global Warming (the temperature will be regulated to prevent largescale climate change)

Nuclear Weapons (all weapons will be permanently disabled, including new ones built)

Bring one extinct animal back to life (T-Rex, dodo’s, wooly mammouths, whatever)

 Prompt 2

The magic genie of Governlandia has granted you one wish—a gift of 100 BILLION dollars.  Good for you.  Unfortunatley, this gift is somewhat restricted—you can only spend it on a handful of things, none of them for your own selfish gain.  Scientists estimate that investing the entire $100 billion in any one area will completely solve that problem; anything less, and the problem will continue.  However, you may distribute the money however you see fit.

Eradicate Terrorism

Universal, unlimited health care

Make Roads Completely Safe

Stop Global Warming

Destroy all Nuclear Weapons

Preserve all Existing Species from Extinction

Groups did not know that there were two different prompts.  When they had made their decision, they posted them on the board, and we discussed why they came to the conclusion they did.

I used this to note a few things.  First, no one gave any attention to the animal rights issues, which led to a discussion about the value of human v. animal life and how some issues can be seen as ‘luxury’ issues. Second, the method of decision making mattered: groups that were allowed to divy up money did so, but had a less intense discussion than those that had to choose only one policy area.  All the groups prioritized health care issues, and we discussed the criteria they use to evaluate the use of funds.  This led us to revisit the definition of politics as ‘who gets what, when, and how’ and segued into a discussion of Mueller’s work on whether or not terrorism is a threat and how people react to it.

Basically this was a neat little 5 minute activity that took no time at all to whip up and explain, but generated numerous discussion points for the remainder of the class.  If you try it out, let me know how it goes!

The Age of Non-Exploration

I am continually frustrated by students’ reluctance to experiment with the user-friendly technological tools that I give them. Most recently this has been demonstrated in my blog-based Europe1914 simulation and in a class that is piloting a new learning management system, Canvas by Instructure. (Please note that I have no financial interest in Instructure; my university is also piloting Blackboard’s 9.1 Learn.)

In the Europe1914 simulation, I intended the blogs to function as a platform for student communication and collaboration. The students did learn how to use the blogs – I provided them with specific directions both on the blogs and elsewhere, and I conducted a short in-class training session. But the students’ use of the blogs was limited to posts and occasional comments. No students explored ways of using the blogs for other purposes or even text formatting options. Conversations consisted primarily of each student on a team posting his or her work, which one or two team members consolidated into a single end product. Teams did not use the blogs to develop negotiation strategies or to bargain with each other.

For the other class, I have been pushing students to use with features in Canvas like discussion threads, wikis, and shared Google Docs. It’s been a tough slog. Many of the students are completely unfamiliar with these tools, and it seems that once they stumble upon one method of communication, they are reluctant to use another, even if it might meet their needs more effectively.

It appears to me that students today are socialized to view learning as a top-down, regimented process in which they do not have to exercise initiative. They expect to be told both what to learn and how to learn. I wish I knew how to break students out of this mindset, but I don’t.