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McConnell: Respect, support student participation

STANFORD -- It probably has happened to anybody who ever has taught a university lecture course.

"You see all these eyes dropping, heads are tilting," Susan McConnell, associate professor of biological sciences, said. "We've all experienced this, when you're losing them. No matter what you try, you're losing them."

That admission was made by one of Stanford's most highly honored teachers in a presentation on maximizing participation in the classroom on May 4, as part of the "Award-Winning Teachers on Teaching" series.

McConnell has found that one effective way to re-engage a drifting audience is simply to get the students involved, to make the ideas their ideas.

All of a sudden, she said, "it's not your idea that you're spouting at them, it's their idea that they want to find out more about from you.

"This forces students to take immediate responsibility for their ideas," she said. "It's harder for them to slip away. And it's fun; it's fun to have a great discussion."

At times, McConnell said, she accomplishes this by using a trick suggested by psychology Professor Russell Fernald -- jarring the class awake by getting them involved in the material.

In a class on developmental biology, McConnell said, she was trying to explain how neurons in the eye send axons into the brain, and how the axons manage to find the correct "targets." The class was beginning to lag, she said. She tried Fernald's trick for the first time.

"I was right at that point where I had given them a whole bunch of background information," McConnell said. "I was getting ready to go through about five sets of experiments that eliminated some mechanisms as being possibilities for controlling this guidance phenomenon -- eventually, I was going to home in on one, and base the rest of the lecture on that experiment."

Instead, she told the class that she was taking a brief break. Then she told the students to discuss the problem with a neighbor and to come up with "five possible mechanisms that would enable these young little axons to find their appropriate positions in the brain."

The students were somewhat stunned, she said, reacting as if to say, "What? This is a lecture."

But, it worked.

"Everyone had a minute to talk it over and one brilliant idea came up after another," she said. "All five [experiments] came up, just like that."

At that point, "all the students were awake, they had had a little social interaction, they were now engaged in the process and, most important, they were invested in these five mechanisms -- they were theirs," she said.

When the students began discussing the various experiments and results, "the class was going wild at this point," McConnell said. "The energy that comes back from that is astounding, it's just incredible."

Mandatory involvement

Getting involved in a discussion or simply posing a question to a lecturer can be intimidating for many students, McConnell said, including herself when she was an undergraduate.

"This is ironic because when I was a college student in a discussion section, even the thought of saying anything would turn my face bright red," she said. "It was almost impossible for me to say anything."

Why, then, is it important to involve students, even to make participation mandatory, in class?

"We kind of take it for granted that increasing the discussion and increasing the participation is important, but often we don't think of why it's important," McConnell said. "Clearly, it keeps students awake, and anyone who's ever taught knows that this is actually not a minor goal of teaching," she said. "But it's increasing the engagement and the intellectual process that's going on, giving students ownership of an idea" that is important, she said.

Doing so can be tricky, however.

"For many students, we are creating an incredibly dangerous situation," McConnell said. "We are creating an opportunity in which the student could be completely humiliated."

McConnell said she was "horrified" to learn of a student who had been told by another professor, during a class, that her question was "incredibly stupid."

And many teachers, while they might handle such situations more politely, can still intimidate their students, she said.

"There are much less overt and much less blatant ways of making students feel stupid, and ones that we can avoid," she said.

McConnell said that in her small lecture and seminar courses, she makes participation mandatory -- it counts as 30 percent of the grade in some classes.

"The rule in discussions is that everyone must talk," she said. "It's not optional. This terrifies students. They're afraid -- that's a positive use of fear," she said to laughs.

Because the students know they will be required, not asked, to participate, McConnell said, they come to class well prepared. "Everyone who walks into that room has read the papers," she said. "They are afraid of being humiliated in front of their classmates by having no idea of what's going on."

This creates an enormous responsibility for the professor or the teaching assistant, McConnell said. "One has to, at every moment, recognize this risk, this vulnerability, when [the students] are required to say, on line, what they think and why.

"You've got to pick out the best thing a person said," McConnell said. Even if a comment is "really out there, the essential thing is to look that person in the eye and say, 'The thing I really like about what you just said was . . .' "

No hand-raising, please

The natural by-product of encouraging and/or requiring participation, however, is what McConnell calls the "Oh! Oh! Oh!" student, one whose hand is constantly raised and who tends to dominate any discussion, when allowed to do so.

"There's nothing more horrible than having a discussion section where no one will talk," McConnell said. "But we really want the students thinking hard . . . you need a lot of opinions, for a lot of students to be talking and making contributions. You can't have one student dominating the discussion."

For many people, she said, "raising your hand while someone [else] is talking is really rude. If you raise your hand while someone is speaking, you've just interrupted them."

So McConnell borrowed another trick, this one from Donald Kennedy, president emeritus and professor of biological sciences.

Students are not allowed to raise their hands.

Instead, they make paper pylons, triangular nameplates, that they place before them. When a student wants to make a comment or pose a question, he or she places the pylon on its end -- a vertical pylon indicates to the teacher that the student wishes to participate.

"It sounds really stupid but it works," McConnell said.

The other key to maximizing participation is for the teacher to develop "psycho-therapeutic" skills in responding to the questions and statements of students.

Much has been made in recent years, McConnell said, about gender bias in the classroom, with girls and women complaining that they are not being afforded the same attention as boys and men, from kindergarten all the way through the highest levels of graduate school.

As it happens, McConnell said, "certain people are very assertive, very declarative" during class, men in particular. A lot of women, and some men, she said, tend to be more "tenuous" during class. McConnell said that early in her teaching career, she found herself paying more attention to male students than women.

"I realized with horror that I was doing that," she said. "I was responding to the different styles in which I was being approached as a teacher. More women in the class tended to phrase their ideas as questions; more men were declarative, were more direct, you might even say confrontational.

"The part of me who loves ideas, who loves a good fight, was kind of rising up to the occasion," McConnell said.

Now, to compensate, when faced with a timid question, McConnell often turns it around into a bold statement.

"I'm not so certain that women [students] need special treatment or special attention," McConnell said. "I think that as teachers, we need to really listen hard to what's nested in the way of phrasing something. There can be a statement in a question, there can sometimes be a question in a statement.

"I hope we can help everyone in the classroom to learn how to phrase their ideas in a way that is declarative and clear, to take responsibility for their ideas and to reward them like mad for that."



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