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Our teaching-and-learning experts give you insights on what works in the classroom. Delivered on Thursdays. Teaching is written by Beth McMurtrie and Beckie Supiano. We love hearing from readers, so please don’t hesitate to reach out to us directly. You can also read more articles about teaching and learning.

August 15, 2019

From: Beckie Supiano

Subject: How Calling on Random Students Could Hurt Women

You’re reading the latest issue of Teaching, a weekly newsletter from a team of Chronicle journalists. Sign up here to get it in your inbox on Thursdays.

This week:

  • A psychologist who studies gender differences in public performance urges instructors to encourage classroom participation in ways that avoid putting students on the spot.
  • Are you interested in having us follow along as you try something new in the classroom this fall? It’s the last week to tell us about your experiment. Use the form below.
  • We point to some recent articles and other reading material you may have missed.

The Hot Seat

When professors pose a question in class, they often find that the same few students raise their hands — while everyone else avoids eye contact. To avoid this dynamic, some instructors simply call on random students.

They should think twice, says Judith E. Larkin. No one likes being put on the spot, says Larkin, a professor emerita of psychology at Canisius College. But the experience, her research shows, is particularly negative for women.

Larkin has studied the gender dynamics of public performance for years. Her interest was piqued in the late 1990s when she noticed there weren’t many female contestants on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Larkin later read that the show struggled to book them.

Larkin thought that her discipline, psychology, could help explain this phenomenon. So she designed an experiment, asking male and female students if they would submit their names to go on the show.

Women were less likely to volunteer, Larkin said, because they “would be much more ashamed than men would be if they couldn’t answer the question.” She and her frequent collaborator Harvey A. Pines think that is because women fear confirming the stereotype that they are not as competent as men.

On the other hand, Larkin said, “for men, it’s the equivalent of, Eh, no big deal.”

Larkin and Pines continued to pull on this thread in their scholarship. They looked at a host of situations in which someone’s intellect would be on public display — including the classroom — and found the same sorts of differences by gender.

These studies, the scholars argue, have important implications for the way professors should teach. “The onus is on teachers,” Larkin said. “to make the classroom a place where students participate.”

A professor calling on students might have the best of intentions. But because being in the hot seat is so much riskier for women, the scholars suggest, instructors should avoid putting students there. “The worst thing,” Larkin said, “is to be pulled up short.”

A better approach, she said, is to expect participation while still giving students control over when and how they contribute.

There are lots of ways to go about this. Larkin and Pines detailed a number of strategies in a piece for the Association for Psychological Science. Among them:

  • Ask students to keep a log of their participation.
  • Ask “safe questions.” For instance: Ask students to raise their hands if they agree with a statement, and then follow up by asking the group who did for examples of their reasoning.
  • When no one answers right away, your best strategy may be to wait.

“The important thing,” Larkin said, “is that the classroom is the proving ground, the training ground for real life.” This is where students hone their leadership skills. “We don’t want to shame them now,” she said, “into not taking the risk of saying something.”
Has evidence from your research — on a subject other than education — changed the way you teach? Tell me about it at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com, and your example may appear in a future newsletter.

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Last Call: Teaching Experimenters and Innovators

Are you trying something new in your classroom or on your campus this fall? Perhaps your department is switching to open-educational resources. Or you are flipping your classroom. Maybe you’ve rewritten your syllabus to engage your students in difficult dialogues. Or you work in the teaching-and-learning center and are trying to reduce the failure rate in a large introductory course.

Whatever it is: We at The Chronicle’s Teaching newsletter would like to hear about it, and you’ve got one more week to let us know.

We may write in the newsletter about what you’re trying and what you’ve learned along the way. And we might invite your fellow Teaching readers to offer advice if you hit roadblocks.

Innovation is tricky, and failures are common. But that doesn’t mean experiments aren’t worth trying and learning from.

If you’re willing to let us follow you throughout the experience (not literally, of course — we’ll give you space!) and possibly write about what you learned from it, fill out this form. Feel free, too, to write and ask us questions if you’re simply curious to hear more: beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com or beckie.supiano@chronicle.com

PS: We’re trying to get the word out on this project, so please share this announcement with anyone you think might be interested in participating.

ICYMI

  • David Morse, a lecturer at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, explains the value of teaching students how to lie in this opinion piece in the Washington Post.
  • Chronicle reporter Will Jarvis tackles the pressing question “Why do we have so many freaking acronyms?” in this story that looks at the risks that higher ed jargon poses to students.
  • In this Twitter thread, Laura M. Tilghman, an assistant professor of anthropology at Plymouth State University, unpacks why she dislikes many books that focus on how to become a better teacher.
  • A new report from the Council of Independent Colleges describes how “online instruction can help small liberal-arts colleges ‘do what we do best, which is offering a relationship-based mode of learning.’”
  • A study published in Bioscience found that large class sizes were more likely to lead to a decrease in female students’ participation in STEM courses compared with other factors, such as the proportion of female students or the instructor’s gender.

Thanks for reading Teaching. If you have suggestions or ideas, please feel free to email us, at dan.berrett@chronicle.com, beckie.supiano@chronicle.com, beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com, or steve.johnson@chronicle.com.

—Beckie and Beth

Beckie Supiano writes about teaching, learning, and the human interactions that shape them. Follow her on Twitter @becksup, or drop her a line at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com.