Whose Learning is it Anyway? Inclusion and Democracy in the University Classroom

by Dr. Jennifer Mather

Motivation, whether it is intrinsic interest in the subject or extrinsic drive for success by measures such as grades, is a powerful force in accomplishment and success (Kunda, 1999). It is therefore vital to give students the drive to succeed in the university setting (Davis, 1993). This can be accomplished by a number of teaching approaches, including making the work connected to the “real world,” providing choices, balancing the challenges of the work, using peers as models for success, and creating a sense of belonging in the classroom. The standard lecture method of university teaching includes few of these motivators. In addition, as Gardner (1983) discusses in the context of multiple intelligences, it focuses on only two cognitive skills, linguistic and logical-mathematical. This ignores students who utilize others of the Kolb (1976) learning styles (Mather & Champagne, 2008). In addition, rote learning is at a low level and the information acquired is soon forgotten. In contrast, student assignments involve them in “real-world” tasks and give them experience that ultimately translates to the employability skills that are valued in the workplaces to which they are destined (Conference Board of Canada, nd). But these assignments are difficult; how can students be motivated to accomplish them? One way is to give them choices and a vote in the processes, to bring some democracy to the classroom.

We can democratize the classroom by tapping into extrinsic motivation and involving students in the assignment of the all-important grades. I have brought a course outline to my fourth-year (size limit 20) course for years without giving the value of each of the four assignments. Instead, I asked the students how much they thought each aspect of the course should be worth in the first class meeting (it has to be done in that class to be legal, and at the University of Lethbridge you have to issue a whole new Course Outline the next class. Discussion ensued, and we came to an agreement on allocation. One year, the students had a fierce debate and came to no agreement. They asked me if I could allow them to make individualized allocations. After consultation with the department chair, I agreed and each filled out and signed a short “contract,” with minima and maxima for each assignment. Three years later, as I was describing this model, one of the classes said, “No, we should all have the same” and we went back to the old model. The next year, however, we returned to individualized contracts. I have since spread this discussion on grade allocation to my third-year classes of 30-40. After some early startle, they have an intelligent and informed discussion about what the grade allocation should be, in the process beginning to build a sense of belonging (Freeman, Anderman, & Jensen, 2007).

Another way in which students can be participants in their grades is for them to help set the value of different components in assignments. For instance, they know in general what an essay is, but with discussion they can see the division into content (information conveyed) and process (demonstrated ability to convey it). They can understand and agree with how the different topic areas that have been specified in the course outline can be valued. They acquiesce with some hesitancy when I specify that some marks must be allocated to process; I point out that if they are ever so knowledgeable yet cannot properly convey that knowledge to me, then it’s no good (and I sometimes point out that in the process they are gaining employability skills). I drag them out to some marks being allocated to APA format; it’s how we are required to convey our information and they might as well learn it. A similar discussion can take place about how oral presentations and posters are evaluated, as well as research projects (where I insist on some marks for the proposal) and even an annotated bibliography. Any project can be broken down into components and this breakdown allows them not only to see the worth of each piece (for the extrinsically motivated) but to get an idea of how to tackle it.

A third way that students can participate in the grading process of group work is to have an end-of-semester evaluation of each member’s contribution. Certainly observing and benefiting from the skills of others is valuable (Davis, 1993), but many good students dislike group work because they feel that contributions will be different. They may end up “carrying” less capable or less energetic students, and they resent it. A course-end evaluation of each member’s contribution can correct that perception, and if all students evaluate the participation of every group member, including themselves, minor likes and dislikes even out. This percentage evaluation changes the grade assigned to each group member. If there is a large component of group work in the class, a relatively small percentage of deviation can make a huge difference in the student’s final grade. I have set limits—not below 80% or above 120%, and I remind them throughout the semester that for this system to work, they must be honest with themselves. Mostly, they are.

The ultimate democratization of grades would be for students to do self-evaluation and receive the grades they recommend. I was told that students would grade themselves lower than I would, and yet I found they graded themselves higher in that fourth-year course. I kept on with asking for a “recommended grade” for a while, until one year a student told me that she had been advised to ask for a grade higher than she thought she deserved, as I graded them one letter grade lower than they asked for. But what I haven’t stopped asking for is an informal evaluation of their performance in the course. I actually point out it’s in their best interest to do this, as they may have made contributions or had discoveries that I wasn’t aware of. I do take this self-evaluation into consideration, and mostly the students are honest about it, too.

The other major aspect of democracy in the classroom is participation. Instead of a passive vessel for information, students can be asked their opinions and give information to their peers. This can be as simple, and useful in large classes, as clicker responses. Posing a collective question, the teacher can extract multiple answers. Of course, this doesn’t work if the only purpose is to find out whether students understood what the teacher was teaching them, but it’s easy to extract opinions, discuss them, and get a snapshot of what the collective understands and believes. A similar low-tech exercise is “teach-pair-share,” when the teacher stops and has students gather, usually in pairs, discuss for about five minutes, and report what they think of the concept. Both techniques work because, again, they bring the students into the discussion and give them the sense of belonging to a group.

Students don’t just need to be part of the discussion, they can teach each other as well. Oral presentations, whether they are reports on an interview or activities outside of class or the fruits of library research, can be dually valuable. First, they can inform the class of something the professor might not have covered, or might not have viewed in the same way or taken in the same direction. This can be particularly useful if the students are asked to do a short paper responding to the views given in one of the presentations. Then they are forced to evaluate at least one of the ideas presented by their peers. But this type of oral presentation serves a second purpose, to train them or at least begin to train them in oral presentation, one of the employability skills that they will likely use all through their adult years. And in the process there is a shift in ownership--it’s not “my” classroom as much as “ours.”

Shaping the learning to the students’ desires and directions can be done much more by the process of inquiry learning, fostered particularly by McMaster University in Hamilton. In that process, students decide what they want to learn, and then go about learning it. I have used a slight modification of this model, where students (in groups, for a class size of 20-50) take on a chapter of the text per week. They generate a question and justify why it is important on Tuesday, send it to the class e-mail and then choose someone else’s question and answer it beginning on Thursday. There is a subtle rivalry for being the group whose questions are chosen, but no marks for this. And along the way, something disconcerting happens to the teacher (Mather, 2007). You become not the centre but an advisor, the source of advice and assistance to students working on their own problems and challenges.

This is probably as close as the modern university classroom can come to the tutorial system in classic British universities, where the tutor met with individual students, gave them assignments and assessed their progress. Interestingly enough, we still have Independent Study, Honours, and Applied Study courses that offer the students the same advantage and freedom. I still remember talking to an Applied Study student about the two papers that he would write for me, and asking him what he wanted to write about. “What?” he said. “You mean I can decide to write about something I am interested in, care for, and want to use as a foundation for my future studies?” Yes, indeed. One caveat to this approach is the experience of students who join a busy lab and are assigned a piece of the professor’s work to carry out or, worse, are assigned to assist a graduate student in the work s/he is doing. There are a lot of useful lessons to be learned from the experience, but it is not independent work.

Is this kind of teaching democracy or is it chaos? In the end the professor has the final say--the grades for the assignments, papers, and presentations. Of course any sane professor is open to discussion, challenge, and evaluation of what students did in these activities. It’s that or face a grade appeal, though students probably appeal in thoughtful democratic classrooms much less that idiosyncratic evaluation of “what you should have learned” in an exam. And unconventional teaching does mean you have to face up to not knowing precisely or in detail “what the students have learned.” But the conventional classroom teacher with the conventional exams doesn’t really know, either. Sometimes teaching seems like running a roller over a grassy area, the blades bend as you roll but spring up as they were after you have passed. Still, this kind of inclusive teaching gives students something we say they should get from a university education--ideas of who they are, what they can do, and where they belong in the universe of educated people. Plutarch said (at greater length) that teaching is not about filling a vessel, it’s about lighting a fire, and a democratic approach to the university classroom offers more chance of doing this than lectures and exams.

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Conference Board of Canada. Employability skills 2000+. Retrieved from http://www.conferenceboard.ca/topics/education/learning-tools/employabil...

Davis, B. G. (1993). Tools for teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Freeman, T. N., Anderman, L. H., & Jensen, J. M. (2007). Sense of belonging in college freshmen at the classroom and campus levels. Journal of Experimental Education, 75, 203-220.

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York, NY: Basic Books. Kolb, D. A. (1976). Learning style inventory. Boston, MA: Hay Group.

Kunda, Z. (1999). Social cognition: Making sense of people. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Mather, J. A. (2007). You want me to what? Barriers to inquiry learning for teachers. In C. Knapper (Ed.), Experiences with Inquiry Learning C. Knapper, Ed., (pp. 95-103). Hamilton, ON: CELT.

Mather, J. A., & Champagne, A. (2008). Student learning styles/learning strategies and professors’ expectations: Do they match? College Quarterly, 11(2), 1-8.

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