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.
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 practicesrandomly 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, 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.
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.