Encouraging equitable tutorial participation


in Canada, Teaching, Toronto

This is my sixth year as a teaching assistant at U of T. While a big part of my TA duties has always been grading, for almost all the courses I have helped teach I have lead tutorials.

Early on, I tried to emulate a system that was common in my small group classes in Oxford (“tutorials” there means one-on-one discussions with your supervisor). The instructors would ask everybody to write a concise summary of each assigned reading and would then call on a student at random for each reading to present their work. The idea is to create a stronger incentive to be prepared for tutorials, and also to give all students an equal chance of contributing. The second part is important because tutorials can easily be dominated by the students with the most privilege, in the sense that they feel entitled to speak and for others to listen to them.

At some point, I conducted a survey and wrote a report on this approach. The big downside was that people were worried about being called on to present, so they did not attend. Attendance in U of T political science tutorials is poor to begin with, so I concluded that this was probably asking too much.

Much later, for a course at UTM, it was necessary to assess participation in tutorials with impractically large numbers of students. On the advice of a fellow TA, I devoted 10 minutes of each 50 minute tutorial to students writing a paragraph or two based on a writing prompt I provided, then rapidly graded participation based on them showing me what they wrote at the end of class (basically on the spectrum of ‘wrote nothing at all’, ‘wrote two lines of nonsense’, ‘pass’).

This year, I am TAing two courses to try to cover the cost of another unfunded summer. In one students are meant to give one presentation. In the other, tutorial grades are all up to me.

My aims when leading a tutorial are principally to encourage a respectful and educational discussion among the students. This is often hampered because nobody is prepared for the tutorial, so all my leading questions about the readings, tutorial topic, and discussion questions yield little response. It is also often hampered for a different reason: because some students dominate discussion – interrupting others, feeling entitled to respond immediately to evert comment made by others, and generally inhibiting the respectful atmosphere which is a precondition for participation among the less privileged and confident. This is especially true in the huge tutorials which are standard in political science at U of T.

So, I am considering alternative means of moderating the discussion. My intuitive approach is to begin by calling on those who first raise their hands, to always call on those who have not spoken yet before calling again on someone who has, to call on people who spoke before earliest before letting people speak a second time, and to gently correct students who speak without recognition from the chair (me) or whose comments are otherwise problematic.

In my six tutorials next week I am planning to explain some of these issues of equity and the mechanics of maintaining a speakers’ list. I will summarize my intuitive approach and suggest some alternatives. One of those would be asking for a student to volunteer in each tutorial to manage the speakers’ list: taking note of people who raise their hands and using some combination of agreed rules and their judgment to choose who gets to speak next.

One idea from U of T seminars generally attended by graduate students and faculty which might be worth incorporating is the “two finger” gesture. As opposed to raising one’s hand, one raises two fingers to say that one has an immediate response to what was just said. This can be important because back-and-forth between people with theories and those who question them (or between people with different points of view) can enrich discussion.

I will also bring up the basic version of the Progressive Clock, which tracks speaking time for female, male, white, and coloured people and can generate graphs and exportable data. If people think it would be valuable to track speaking time in that way, I would ask for a second volunteer to do so and send the data to me.

I take my work as a teaching assistant seriously. That’s central to grading, obviously, but the pedagogy of teaching matters too. I welcome comments on any part of this (and I will try to find that report on random presentations).

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

alena November 22, 2017 at 11:42 pm

You have put a lot of thought into making the tutorial sessions more interesting, inclusive and cooperative. I have also seen tutorial groups subdivided with each group choosing a person to take down ideas in the group and reporting on them. This can create deeper insights.

Sasha November 23, 2017 at 1:29 am

These all seem like great ideas Milan. I wish I had you as a T.A. during my time at McGill. I remember tutorials were one of my favourite portions of all my history classes. I particularly enjoyed the opportunity to engage in open-ended discussion and hear other student’s interpretations and criticisms of the readings. Often times people were read in very different domains and were able to bring in ideas from other disciplines. It was social and enabled me to make a number of “class friends” with whom I could discuss the course content, study or bounce paper ideas off of. Finally, I found tutorial discussions also did a lot to aid in retention of the readings.

Looking back, tutorials are something I miss in my conversion from humanities to the sciences. Labs are much more stressful & often impossibly packed with procedure, in-lab assignments and practical evaluation. Unfortunately, as the lab component is typically designed and overseen by somebody other than the lecturing professor, there is often very little (or no) overlap between lecture and lab material. This can make the lab seem like a whole new course, bearing its own burden of research, reading and constant study. Furthermore, in an effort to make the experiential learning more true-to-life, T.A’s are often instructed to not answer questions regarding experimental outcomes, which can lead to lots of misunderstanding in complex labs such as my weekly cell & molecular bio lab. Alas!

David Scrimshaw November 23, 2017 at 11:03 am

Hi Milan,

I admire that you’re putting so much thought into this.

You might want to try a format used in one of my most interesting classes in law school, it was called “Law and Feminism”.

Every week we read a book.

There were about 15 students and we sat around a table. The professor would randomly pick a student to start and then going around the table clockwise, each student would talk for a few minutes about the book and what they drew from it.

No interruptions or questions of each other were allowed and we strongly discouraged from trying to enter a dialogue with each other, although differing viewpoints or clarifications of what others said were expressed.

If someone got long-winded, the professor would gently suggest we move to the next student.

This format meant we had to do the reading and we all had to articulate something about the reading.

We also wrote our thoughts on the books in a journal and the professor graded us on our journals.

Tristan November 23, 2017 at 1:24 pm

It’s unfortunate that attendance is not mandatory. A course director’s decision to base grades almost entirely on what a student can produce, rather than participation (even in the bare sense of being present), is mistaken in my view. I would suggest we ask, why have tutorials at all? The general answer, I think, is they function as a kind of supplement to large lectures such that discussion of the kind which could take place in class if the class were small, can take place in the tutorial. But those discussions can’t take place if students don’t prepare for tutorial, or don’t attend tutorial. In my view, students must be forced to attend, and to prepare. If the department is unwilling to impose sanctions on students who don’t fulfill duties that are essential for tutorials to fulfill their intended role, and to be honest I recognize this is often the case, my general solution during my six years of TAing, was to lecture for the first half of the tutorial, and move into discussion for the 2nd half. I found by doing this, I was able to get much broader participation.

I was lucky enough not to be teaching multiple large tutorials at the same time, so I at least thought I could “wing it” with respect to equity considerations in terms of speaking times. I also kept track, informally, of who spoke a lot, and pretty explicitly didn’t call on them as often. I think it helped that York is lot less white compared to U of T, and my tutorials were rarely majority white. I remember the last tutorial I taught, only a single student had parents who were born in Canada.

For your situation, I think an equity clock (as linked above) is a great idea. I’m also a big believer in using technology to make keeping a speakers list less arduous (writing down names on a piece of paper, I can say from experience, is a labour intensive way of keeping a list).

Another thing you might want to consider, and actually you already are considering it, because we are talking about “facilitation” here, is multiple-facilitator models. I’m surprised you’re thinking of handing off the job of selecting people to speak to a student, but if you have confidence in them, why not give it a try. I’ll copy below the “Guide and Shepard” approach that the NASCO board uses.

1. Familiarize yourself with the agenda before the meeting to get a sense of length of discussion for each point and flow between points.
2. Quickly present the agenda or the structure of the discussion at the opening of the meeting and invite brief feedback.
3. Keep the discussion and decision-making focused on agenda items throughout the meeting.
4. Act as an overall meeting time-keeper and interrupt the meeting to alert the group when discussion stretches on longer than the expected or allotted time.
5. Proactively phrase and rephrase proposals and try different approaches to questions or issues to help guide the group through difficult discussions and decisions.
6. Experiment with different approaches to a discussion or decision such as splitting a larger group into small groups to begin to work through a difficult issue or question.
7. When using hand signs for consensus it is your responsibility to make sure that all the participants have clearly indicated their sign and in the case of consensus, to announce to the group that consensus has been achieved and a decision has been made.
1. It is your responsibility to pass the speaking turn at the meeting carefully and equitably around the group.
2. Take careful note of the nature of contributions from all participants and strive to maintain a diversity and equality of opportunity for discussion contribution for all participants. For example if participant W tends to dominate the conversation at the expense of other participants, then the Shepherd may adopt an approach to speaking rights that privileges the contributions of other participants over those of participant W.
3. Try passing the space to speak around the group through such means as:
o o o
Speakers Stack in which participants indicate their desire to speak and are placed on a speakers list to be called on in turn.
Go-around in which the turn to speak is passed circularly around the group.
Duck Duck Goose in which the Shepherd passes the turn to speak around the group at random or at their discretion.
4. Do not be afraid to focus on a single meeting participant to enable and encourage them to speak. Some people need this kind of explicit space to be able to effectively contribute. Remind everyone that they can always pass if they do not feel like speaking.
5. Keep track of overall energy, emotions, and tensions in the group and interrupt the discussion to suggest breaks, group hugs, periods of silence, or anything else that is needed to maintain a positive and focused meeting environment.
6. When using hand signs for consensus it is your responsibility to call first on participants whose signs indicate the most dissent from the overall feeling of the group. (When using “process point” and “fist” hand signals, remember that these signs take precedent over all the rest.)

Milan November 23, 2017 at 2:09 pm

Thank you all for the comments and suggestions. It’s great to see people engaging with a post like in the days when people still read blogs and not just Facebook…

I will spend 10-20 minutes during my next set of tutorials discussing these issues and what changes we ought to make. That will hopefully make students feel as though the changes are part of a collaborative process which they engaged with.

Milan November 23, 2017 at 2:29 pm

Do you have a version of the “Guide and Shepard” approach in document form which I could distribute by email? It might be good to pull together a few such documents so that students can consider the equity and practical questions involved in effective facilitation.

Oleh November 26, 2017 at 12:43 am

I am far removed from school to over particular insight or suggestions. However, I would encourage methods that enhance equality of participation. I would be interested in hearing what you find successful..

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