I went to a relatively small university with many undergraduate courses of 10-20 students and high expectations of participation. If anything, students were over-engaged in class discussion, talking over each other or feeling the need to contribute to every point. When I became a graduate TA at a large state university, I was shocked that in my TA-led discussion sessions of undergraduate students, it was hard to get students to participate. That sense has continued at the two other large state universities I have worked as a professor. When I teach large classes in particular, it can be challenging to get even one student to answer one of my questions.
Once you’re in graduate school, particularly in the social sciences, the expectation is generally that you will contribute during discussion in graduate seminars. The specific expectations vary. In some courses, you need to run a whole class or part of a class with PowerPoint and content that you developed in advance. Students often (not always – your results may vary) find that type of participation easier because it is a structured, prepared contribution. But today I’m referring to more informal, but no less important, discussions where you participate in a discussion of a specific reading, set of readings, or specific topic. In some courses, a portion of your course grade relies on class participation (I often do make class participation part of the grade in graduate seminars).
Students approach this expectation with varying degrees of enthusiasm… and dread. Some students love the opportunity to share their reactions and opinions, and like the switch from more lecture-oriented course sessions to more interactive sessions. Other students are petrified at the idea of having to speak up in this informal way. Here are some things that I’ve learned through the years that students may find helpful for grad class participation – both for students who are afraid to speak up, and for students who speak up frequently but don’t receive the participation grade they would like.
- Come to class prepared: It should go without saying that if you want to contribute to class discussion, you should have done the readings in a thoughtful way. While you are reading, take notes on questions you have or points you may want to make during class. Don’t ask a question unless you’ve done the reading. It’s awkward when someone asks a question that makes it clear the student didn’t do the assigned readings. It’s fine to ask for clarification of ideas in the reading you didn’t fully understand, as long as you make it clear that you actually read it. Thoroughly reading the assigned papers and coming to class prepared also makes it easier to jump in when someone makes a point that relates to notes you have taken. It’s easier to make connections to others’ points if you all read the same papers.
- What are good contributions? There’s obviously a range of points that will further the discussion. But, much like in response papers, the types of points that can particularly impress the instructor, or can help move discussion forward, include:
- Making connections between one or more readings
- Making connections between theoretical constructs and empirical findings
- Making connections to earlier weeks or, sometimes, to other courses
- Saying something appropriately critical of a reading (but not just criticizing for the sake of criticizing)
- Thinking about extensions/applications. For instance, can we apply these findings to intervention or clinical settings?
- Responding to other students’ comments
- Disagreeing with other students’ comments, as long as it’s respectful
- In the context of student presentations, asking classmates a question or following up on one of their points
- Considering other ways to measure constructs in empirical work
- Based on questions or future directions the authors posed, thinking about how to respond to those points
- Considering cultural changes over time, and how applicable the theory or findings are in light of these changes, particularly if the reading is more than 10 years old. Do these ideas still apply in the current world?
- How universal is this perspective? That is, can the theory be applied to people of all possible categories all over the world?
- Describing your own thoughts on a perspective, e.g., I really liked this theory because…
- Ask questions: Asking the instructor or other students questions is always a relatively easy way to contribute. Simple questions to ask include:
- Clarification questions
- Has anyone ever considered this research topic in this different context? (e.g., different population, different constructs, etc.)
- Has there been subsequent work on this topic?
- Learning how to jump in: One thing I realized through the years is that some students in general, and international students in particular, can find it challenging to jump into discussions. I’ve had students say that they have an idea but that so many other people contribute that by the time the discussion quiets down, it feels too late to make that point (or the class has moved onto a new point). So, even learning some key phrases for jumping in can be useful to students. Here are some phrases that students may find useful:
- Related to Sara’s point…
- Following up on Nate’s point…
- I also wanted to say that…
- That part of the paper made me think about…
- That’s an interesting point. I also thought that…
- Does that make you think about…?
- Given what Carla said I wonder if…
- I see what you mean about X. I also wonder if…
- Apply the concepts to your own research area: It can be interesting to classmates if from time to time you share how a particular theory or research area may apply to your own area of research – you are extending the topic and bringing in new ideas. Just don’t be the student who every single week pulls the week’s topic back to your own area of research.
- Sharing personal experiences: The issue of sharing personal experiences is a challenging one. I find that some students, rather than thinking about the work at a higher, conceptual level, think about the reading in terms of how it relates to their own lives (not even their own research). Which sometimes is fine. But there is always the student who, every week, turns the readings into self-disclosure that seems to go beyond that week’s readings. The, “my brother used to do that” student. I used to just let these students go when they talked about these personal experiences, because as an instructor, I find it awkward to stop them (how do you interrupt a student talking about her parents’ divorce?). But once, someone noted in my teaching evaluations that they wished I had done more to stop students’ discussion of personal experience. Since then, I’m more aware when a student goes into “my brother used to do that” mode. Instead of cutting the student off, though, I try to bring the student back to the topic, which is something you could also try to do if you want to share a personal experience. So, for instance, if the topic is parenting style and adolescent outcomes, and a student shares that her parents used to be really strict, and her brother was rebellious, I might then ask, does that illustrate the expected outcome of an authoritarian parent? What would the readings suggest your parents should have done differently to lead to your brother being less rebellious? How could the reading be used as general parenting advice? So, if you want to share a personal experience, make sure that it clearly relates to, and expands on, the readings rather than simply… sharing a personal experience.
Do you find it challenging to participate in grad class discussion? What tricks do you use?
“Participating in graduate seminar discussions first appeared on Eva Lefkowitz’s blog on September 20, 2018.”