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What Have We Learned From Student Perceptions of Voluntary Participation: Are We Being Equitable?

Imagine sitting in the audience at a large conference and you had a question. You think to yourself, “should I ask it?” but then overthinking, nervousness, and anxiety come to play, forcing a larger part of your consciousness to rely on someone else to ask that question for you. This is a decision that students in your classes are experiencing, and not all students experience this to the same extent.

Student participation as a way to engage students: what you should know

A common way for instructors to maintain an active and engaged classroom is by allowing their students to participate in front of the class; this teaching practice is sometimes known as the “Socratic Method” and can serve as a way to help students stay engaged and to critically think (Garside 1996). Instructors will often use this method because they think it can benefit everyone in their classrooms, but little research has been done in large-enrollment science courses.

Is whole-class student participation equally beneficial for students?

While whole-class participation seems like a teaching practice that could help all students stay awake in class, this practice may actually disproportionately help a select group of students. A recently published study found that although most students find it helpful when others ask and answer questions, a large percentage of students do not want to be the ones asking and answering in front of the whole class (Nadile et al, 2021). Notably, compared to students whose parents went to college, the study found that students whose parents did not attend college were significantly more likely to perceive that other students asking questions were helpful. Students reported a number of reasons why they found it helpful. Most students indicated that they sometimes have the same question as the question being asked. Another reason why students find it helpful is that other students’ questions can help clarify their thinking.

However, there are students who report never asking questions and women are less likely than men to report asking questions in front of the whole class. Students feel discouraged from asking questions if they feel anxious about asking questions or if they fear being negatively judged by others.

Even though most students found it helpful when others answered questions, nearly half of students reported they themselves never answer questions. Students who have the worry that they will be judged in social settings were more likely to never answer questions.

What to be mindful of when designing your own courses and developing your own teaching practices

Instructors have many decisions to make that relate to student participation. While student participation could be beneficial to some students, these benefits may not be spread out among all the students equally. Should instructors continue to encourage student participation, even if it means that it may promote inequities in the class? We encourage instructors to consider ways to elicit student participation in a more equitable way. Instead of relying on student volunteers, instructors can randomly call on students. However, although this will make participation equitable, it does not mean that the student’s experience participating will be the same. Two studies have shown that student anxiety is heightened by random call in the classroom, so alternative approaches that allow students to ask or answer questions anonymously in class could be more equitable (Cooper et al, 2018 and Downing et al, 2020). We ask instructors to consider creative ways in which they can hear the students' voices but do so in a more equitable and less anxiety-provoking way.

For more information on student participation in the college science classroom please check out these articles:

Cooper KM, Brownell SE. Student anxiety and fear of negative evaluation in active learning science classrooms. In: Walter E, Mintzes JJ, editors. Active learning in college science, the case for evidence-based practice. Springer Nature; 2020.

Cooper, K. M., Downing, V. R., & Brownell, S. E. (2018). The influence of active learning practices on student anxiety in large-enrollment college science classrooms. International Journal of STEM Education, 5(1), 1-18.

Downing VR, Cooper KM, Cala JM, Gin LE, Brownell SE. Fear of negative evaluation and student anxiety in community college active-learning science courses. CBE—Life Sci Educ. 2020; 19: ar20. https:// doi.org/10.1187/cbe.19-09-0186 PMID: 32453679

Eddy, S. L., Brownell, S. E., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Gender gaps in achievement and participation in multiple introductory biology classrooms. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 13(3), 478-492.

Garside, C. (1996). Look who's talking: A comparison of lecture and group discussion teaching strategies in developing critical thinking skills.

Nadile, E. M., Alfonso, E., Barreiros, B. M., Bevan-Thomas, W. D., Brownell, S. E., Chin, M. R., ... & Cooper, K. M. (2021). Call on me! Undergraduates’ perceptions of voluntarily asking and answering questions in front of large-enrollment science classes. Plos one, 16(1), e0243731.


Post Author

Elonna Okuagu is a senior undergraduate student in Sara Brownell's Biology Education Research Lab at ASU. He studies Biological Sciences (Neurobiology, Physiology and behavior) at ASU and has a desire to discover inequities in undergraduate biology classrooms to support a better learning environment for biology students.


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