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Encourage Student Participation by Building Class Community

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Being part of an academic community is a hallmark of a university experience, but students aren’t automatically aware of how to become an active member of that community. It is our responsibility as instructors to welcome them all and help them feel that they belong as we interact with them in classes.

Build Class Community

Use Micro-affirmations and Inclusive Affirmative Statements to Create a Sense of Belonging

“Micro-affirmations lie in the practice of generosity, in consistently giving credit to others, in providing comfort and support when others are in distress.”

ROWE, M. (2008). MICRO-AFFIRMATIONS & MICRO-INEQUITIES. JOURNAL OF THE INTERNATIONAL OMBUDSMAN ASSOCIATION, 1(1), 45–48.
List of ideas for micro-affirmations

Acknowledge students’ presences and absences – “Thank you for participating in the activities today.” Email: We missed you in class this week. Make sure you review the online materials and reach out if you need clarification.”

Acknowledge progress and contributions – “You all came up with some really cool responses. I love the way everybody thinks about this a little differently.”

Be gracious when students encounter learning challenges – “Learning how and when to employ this equation is tough. I remember nearly failing my first organic chemistry exam because of it, but with a tutor and repeated practice, I learned it.”

Use backchanneling (e.g. nodding, facial expressions, moving closer) to indicate you are engaged with what students are saying.

Respect students’ identities and use inclusive language – Learn proper pronunciation of names, use preferred pronouns, substitute “parents” with “family”, “boy/girlfriend” with “partner”, and “husband/wife” with “spouse”.

Affirmative Inclusive Statements

Share your learning struggles to affirm that everyone belongs – “I didn’t know how to study for this class until I went to office hours. My instructor cleared up my confusion in about 15 minutes. I wish I had gone so much sooner!”

Use statements that acknowledge alternative perspectives to contextualize material without undermining it’s value to the course content – “Let’s return to this article, where the author only looks at coastal metropolitan cultures and not middle-America.” or “Though this article/story/video lacks women’s voices, what are its merits given our objective for today?”

Learn the material and any critiques, and refer to both in discussion – “Blade Runner 2049 does stay true to the cyberpunk genre in its emphasis on the oppressed under corporatocracy. Let’s just be aware, though, how it fetishizes Asian cityscapes and cultural objects, though there are no Asians in the future it creates.”

Teaching Controversial or Sensitive Topics

For classes that deal with controversial or sensitive topics, consider using some of the following suggestions in conjunction with the above ideas to prepare yourself and your students for mutually respectful and productive interactions.

Pre-term Tasks
  • Know your content and anticipate ways it can be sensitive. Focus on the learning objectives, structure of the arguments, underlying assumptions, evidence, diversity of perspectives, etc.
  • Be aware of your feelings, assumptions and biases, and keep your personal opinions to yourself.
  • Add dealing with controversial or sensitive topics to learning outcomes so you can focus on teaching students how to think through complex issues from multiple perspectives.
  • Add a statement to your syllabus about discussing sensitive topics. Make your commitment to inclusivity, respectful interactions, and consideration for diverse perspectives clear to the students.
Prepare Students to Discuss
  • Inform the students about the topic and potentially controversial discussion in advance. Allow those that feel distressed about it to talk to you confidentially.
  • Provide all students with enough background material and preparatory homework to participate fully in the conversation.
    • Provide clear descriptions of the topic and issues surrounding it, explain why it is sensitive and why it is important to discuss it.
    • Provide guidance on how to analyze and judge issues based on context and evidence.
  • Encourage individual deep thinking in the preparatory homework - ask students to prepare questions and outline particular perspectives, write down their own position, experience and assumptions, and to consider other perspectives.
  • Consider various discussion strategies that might achieve the learning objectives besides whole group discussion: anonymous contributions and questions before class, peer discussion, small groups, forums, debates, jigsaw, short student presentations with Q&A.
Set Up Ground Rules

Have the class make a set of ground rules and respectful disagreement phrasing that help them engage with each other respectfully and constructively. Use the following ground rules to start a discussion about mutually respectful conversations in your class.

  • Allow everyone the chance to speak.
  • Commit to learning, not debating.
  • Comment in order to share information, not to persuade.
  • Listen without interrupting.
  • Listen actively to understand others’ views.
  • Don’t just think about what you are going to say while someone else is talking.
  • Avoid blame, speculation, and inflammatory language.
  • Avoid assumptions about any member of the class.
  • Avoid generalizations about social groups.
  • Avoid asking individuals to speak for their (perceived) social group.
During the Conversation
  • Be an active facilitator of the discussion - reiterate the learning objectives and main points, reinforce ground rules, have questions ready that will spark conversations, organize the space, timing and group logistics, mediate and take control of the discussion when needed.
  • Attend to your own non-verbal communication - make sure you use an open posture, encouraging gestures, and facial expressions that encourage participation and are non-threatening.
  • Deflect any damaging interactions or comments back to yourself to curtail emotional harm.
  • Recontextualize the topic to provide fresh perspectives. Ask students with various backgrounds and experiences to share their perspectives.
  • Be willing to change your position and model incorporating diverse perspectives into your thinking.
If Students Show Distress...
  • Notice body language that shows students are distressed (as opposed to uncomfortable), such as unfocussed or overly focussed attention, un-conversational language, physical or facial agitation, closed-off body language.
    • De-escalate the distress by recognizing verbally that emotions are getting high, so it’s time to take a little break.
    • Ask everybody to relax for a little while by reflecting on their feelings, assumptions, and positions through writing or drawing.
    • Redirect class attention to yourself, remind the class of the ground rules and phrases they can use to speak respectfully.
    • Allow students to leave if they are too distressed by the topic.
  • Do not ignore student comments that seem overly emotional. Be empathetic. Use an honestly inquisitive tone of voice and open body language. Try to summarize their comment and then ask questions to allow them to work through their emotions and feel heard.
    • What brought you to this perspective?
    • Can you try to explain what you mean by that please? Can you be more specific?
    • What examples or evidence can you tell us about to support your argument?
    • Where are the positions, assumptions and biases of the sources you are using? What about for opposing viewpoints?
    • Can you think of any experiences you might have had that would make you think this way?
    • Imagine you were someone from a different background. How would you react to your statement?
After the Discussion
  • Summarize the main points at the end and assign reflection work.
  • Connect the discussion to other class content and explain how it will be used in future assignments.
  • Talk to students who seemed the most embroiled individually after class, if needed.
  • Reflect on the discussion and bring that reflection back to the class later.
  • Have students reflect as well.
    • What new ideas did you learn?
    • How are you more aware of this topic now?
    • Reflect on ideas you heard but do not agree with. Try to specify why you do not agree, and to what degree, and how others might respond to you.
    • Reflect on ideas you agree with. Try to specify why you agree, and to what degree, and how others might respond to you.
Ground rules - examples for potentially sensitive and personal topics

Ground Rules for potentially sensitive and personal topics

Use these ground rules to start a discussion about mutually respectful conversations in your class.

  • Allow everyone the chance to speak.
  • Commit to learning, not debating.
  • Comment in order to share information, not to persuade.
  • Listen without interrupting.
  • Listen actively to understand others’ views.
  • Don’t just think about what you are going to say while someone else is talking.
  • Avoid blame, speculation, and inflammatory language.
  • Avoid assumptions about any member of the class.
  • Avoid generalizations about social groups.
  • Avoid asking individuals to speak for their (perceived) social group.

Building Community in Online and Blended Courses

The most important part of teaching online is to build and maintain a class community. One of the biggest reasons students drop out of online courses is because they don’t feel connected to other people in the class. It takes intentionally integrating elements of community building into all aspects of your online course to help students feel connected to the instructor and each other. Here are some ways you can do that.

Online courses build community based on a combination of four principles:

  1. Collective Identity – Relationships are interpersonal; Responsibility is distributed among the community; Divergent thinking is amplified by the relationships.
  2. Social and Cognitive Presence – There are real people with real lives who make up the community and collaborate to explore problems and solutions.
  3. Democratization of Learning – Learning is a social process that helps to equalize the power dynamic between students and instructors; critical deliberation and emancipatory praxis is strengthened by digital contexts that amplify human empowerment, learning, and access.
  4. Being Human – Helping people feel included through empathy, flexibility, personalization, social cues, real language for real people, and frequent meaningful interactions.

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