Over the past several years, I've summarized content from several articles written by Kimberly Tanner, a biologist who teaches at San Francisco State University. Her material is first-rate, and the article summarized here is no exception. The issue here is how we often treat students as “interchangeable entities” and are not always as aware as we should be that they have individual histories and personal characteristics. They aren't all the same, and we have a responsibility to help all of them learn—“not just those who are already engaged, already participating, and perhaps already know[ing] the biology [name your content] being taught.” (p. 322) The goal is to structure the class so that “all
students have opportunities to verbally participate, all
students can see their personal connections to biology, all
students have time to think, all
students can pose ideas and construct their knowledge of biology, and all
students are explicitly welcomed into the intellectual discussion of biology.” (p. 322) Those are lofty objectives, but that's what a commitment to teach all students entails. Tanner proposes that those objectives can be reached with a set of teaching strategies that are mostly simple and direct. She identifies 21 of them in the article, which she says do not make a comprehensive list. There's not enough space to share all 21, but these samples are illustrative, and the article can be consulted for more detail on these and on those not listed here.
Giving students opportunities to talk and think about the content
Teachers know the content well. We've spent hours thinking about it, so all the concepts—what they mean, how they connect, and why they're important—are crystal clear to us. It's easy to forget that students are encountering this material from different perspectives and without an extensive background.
Encouraging, demanding, and actively managing the participation of all students
- Wait time—After you've said something, after you've asked a question, pause. Give it time to sink in. Waiting just a few seconds can really help students, but so many of us don't wait long enough. It feels like we're wasting time and there's still lots of content to get through. We call on the first hand we see and don't give most students the time they need to think.
- Allow students time to write—Sometimes waiting isn't enough for students to form an idea or prepare to articulate one. Writing can help students do that. If it's really an important idea or an essential concept, give students time to jot down their thoughts—what they think it means, what they don't understand, what questions they need to ask. Expressing their thoughts in writing motivates more students to speak.
Building an inclusive and fair classroom community for all students
- Multiple hands, multiple voices—Tanner recommends waiting until there are multiple hands raised in response to a question and then hearing from more than one student before commenting on the responses.
- Monitor student participation—Teachers need to be aware of who's participating and how often they are contributing. They should not call on those who already contributed two or three times but should encourage others. “I know others of you have good ideas, observations, or questions. Please share what's on your mind.” Over-participation happens because teachers call on those same students.
Self-monitoring behavior to cultivate divergent thinking
- Use varied active-learning strategies—There is no one right or best way to teach our content. Some strategies work well for some students and not for others. Teachers interested in making the content accessible to all students should vary their approaches in a given class period and across several of them.
- Be explicit about promoting access and equity for all students—Often students think teachers are out to get them—to weed out those who can't learn the course content. Teachers need to openly state their goal of helping all students succeed. That doesn't mean lowering standards or giving students grades they haven't earned, but it does mean that every student has the teacher's commitment to support the efforts he or she makes to learn the content.
Besides monitoring student behavior, teachers should pay attention to their own responses. Is the teacher open to new ideas, new ways of thinking about questions, and different ways of framing answers?
Teaching all of the students in your classroom
- Do not judge responses—That doesn't mean letting wrong answers stand. It's about putting a bit of distance between the student and the answer. Solicit several responses, thanking each student for his or her contribution. Then sort through the collection, dealing with wrong, right, interesting, unusual, and possibly right answers. The focus should be on the answer, not the student who offered it.
- Use praise with caution—After waiting for what feels like a very long time for an answer, some teachers have a tendency to gush over the response when it's finally uttered. “Fabulous.” “Exactly right.” If it sounds to other students as though the perfect answer has been given, that means there's no need for further comments. What makes an answer good certainly should be acknowledged, but not in a way that makes it seem like the last word on that topic has been spoken.
- Teach them from the moment they arrive—Tanner's point here is that students learn lots of things in our courses besides content. A teacher can say that the course is about learning, but if what's mostly discussed the first day are the course policies and grading standards, students have learned what's really important in the course.
- Yes, the primary responsibility of teachers is the course's content, but it is also possible to use the classroom to teach lessons about fairness, equity, and inclusiveness. When teachers use strategies and approaches that help all students learn, they may well be teaching one of those lessons students never forget.
Tanner, K. B. (2013). Structure matters: Twenty-one teaching strategies to promote student engagement and cultivate classroom equity. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 12
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