@ FORCCAST / Sciences Po. Simon BOLDUC (doctorant, Université de Sherbrooke, Québec - Canada)
Making pedagogical innovation a collective challenge: communities of practice
11 January 2018

How to encourage interactivity and student participation in a lecture class?

©Martin Argyroglo / Sciences Po, Nancy campus.

©Martin Argyroglo / Sciences Po, Nancy campus.

In this interview, Anne Revillard describes the innovative pedagogy techniques she uses in her interdisciplinary Master’s course, “Disability and Society”, at Sciences Po (90 students). The class examines the how the social status of people with disabilities has changed over the last century.

Interview with Anne REVILLARD, Associate Professor in Sociology, OSC-LIEPP, Sciences Po.
  • Who are you?

I am an associate professor in sociology affiliated with the Observatory of Social Change (Observatoire sociologique du changement, OSC) and the Interdisciplinary Laboratory of the Evaluation of Public Policy (Laboratoire interdisciplinaire d’évaluation des politiques publiques, LIEPP). My most recent research has to do with the politics of disability in France.

  • Can you tell us, in a few words, what your class is about?

The course, entitled “Disability and Society” (the class is taught in English) invites students to reflect on the transformation of the social status of disabled people. It draws on work in the interdisciplinary field of Disability Studies, both in terms of conceptual tools and empirical methods. We analyse the evolution of the concept of disability (from the medical model to the social model and the interactive approach) in connection with mass mobilisations and the transformation of government measures in this domain. The question of disability serves as a jumping off point for an assessment of knowledge sharing between public policy-makers, activists and academics. We study the effects of the movement to promote the rights of the disabled in the spheres of education, employment and care. We discuss how disability is represented in society, and how it has changed.

  • Which programme is your class associated with and how many students do you teach? What is the importance of teaching this type of class at Sciences Po?

This class was proposed under the auspices of the interdisciplinary Master’s programme. This framework is important because it helps position disability as an interdisciplinary question, to be taken into consideration in every scope of intervention and public action, or “disability mainstreaming”. During the fall semester of 2017-2018, there were 90 students in total, coming from a variety of programmes and countries, pursuing a wide range of majors, several of whom had direct personal experience with disability. This diversity of profiles, especially the presence of disabled students in the group, made our discussions particularly stimulating.

  • Indeed, this class gives high priority to student discussions. How do you encourage interactivity when teaching such a large group?

The participatory approach is often associated with small groups, and it no doubt easier when there are fewer students. But that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible in an auditorium. After ten years of teaching large classes in the classic lecture format (particularly in the introductory courses for first years), I wanted to test more participatory approaches.

Concretely, this means lots of organisation and work ahead of time. It basically means figuring out participation plans so that: 1) the students participate effectively; 2) that this participation isn’t too lopsided; and 3) that the participation is productive and useful to the collective learning process.

I mainly used two primary strategies. First of all, starting with the fourth week of class, students participated in the creation of pedagogic content by doing group presentations of case studies using pre-assigned research articles. The presentations were strictly limited to no more than 10 minutes; we usually had two presentations per session. Another group of students (also preselected) were given the role of “discussers” of these presentations. During each session, I also repeatedly used the technique of “think/pair/share”, which consists of asking students to think about a question on their own, then exchange ideas with their neighbour before opening up the subject to group discussion. I adopted this technique using simple questions, but also commentaries on images or videos, as well as texts. The time for thinking/sharing varied according to the subjects and the medium.

These two strategies allowed me to initiate a participative dynamic that eventually spread beyond the boundaries of the exercise: the students, having adopted the habit of working this way, were more comfortable asking questions or making comments at other times during the class.

  • We sometimes have a tendency to think that participation and discussion are detrimental to the more academic aspects of teaching. Do you think this is true? How do you link these two elements?

First, there is the question of balance when structuring class time. Classes cannot be reduced to a discussion with the students; you can alternate segments with a more lecture-style format, using slides that have been distributed beforehand, with more participatory segments. So, far from an opposition between participation and academic content, I’ve placed one at the service of the other: by giving them a structure (presentations focused on specific texts), by making participation an opportunity for individual learning of academic content (which supports the technique of “think/pair/share”, which comes under the scope of active pedagogy), and by systematically linking the most unstructured participation with the academic objectives of the course. The questions, comments, stories, have thus helped clarify certain theoretical points, and illustrated others. In particular, the stories that disabled students volunteered were especially appreciated by the entire group.

  • Encouraging participatory activities is also taking a risk that certain students will resist and not engage. Where do these students fit into a discussion?

It’s not about forcing students to speak, but making it possible, by dedicating time and also by maintaining a benevolent group atmosphere where students can be heard. Disparity in speaking time is hard to avoid. Structural inequalities are partially to blame (especially those related to gender and social class), which I try to remedy by putting in place the measures I described earlier. But it also reflects varying degrees of interest and investment on the part of the students, which is perfectly normal. I do regret, however, that certain issues only come up in written work turned in at the end of the course. In the future, I will try to make it clearer that criticism is welcome and can lead to some very productive discussions.

  • Have you also tried to innovate in terms of methods for evaluating students?

Within the scope of this course, I was able to put in place innovative evaluation methods, in terms of format (the written work was handed in and corrected on Moodle) as well as schedule. My objective was to promote in-class learning and to stagger it throughout the semester so that it wouldn’t all be concentrated at the end. I asked for two individual written assignments to complement collective oral work (presentations and discussions). Starting in the first weeks of class, students were obliged to respond to questions on fundamental texts, which assured that the theoretical basics were mastered from the beginning of the course. At the end of the course, they were required to hand in a personal summary explaining how and if the class changed their perspective on disability, and what they would like to take away in the long term in relation to their personal and professional projects. During the course, students were encouraged to organize discussions around these questions, which may have helped them stay attentive during other students’ oral contributions (otherwise they run the risk of being perceived as not “really” part of the class). So, evaluation methods were in part aimed at achieving participation objectives.

  • How and why did you become interested in active pedagogy?

I was feeling unsatisfied with the non-interactive aspect of the lecture classes that I’d taught so far, and little by little, through exchanges with various colleagues, I became aware of the active pedagogy process. Aden Gaide, a doctoral student at OSC, told me about his use of “think/pair/share” in his seminars. When Charlotte Tempier asked me to do a methodological learning module online (video), I had rewarding discussions with her about techniques that promote interactivity in lecture classes. I supplemented these conversations by following the “Active Learning Guidelines” module on Moodle. I also participated in the Pôle Handicap’s deliberations on promoting universal concepts in pedagogical practices. Finally, in the summer of 2016, I had the opportunity to teach at UBC-Vancouver, under the auspices of the double diploma Sciences Po–UBC, which for me was the moment to test active pedagogy practices on small groups of students, thanks to the specific nature of summer school classes and as a result of discussions with UBC colleagues.

  • If you had one or two pieces of advice to give to a teacher who wants to start using active pedagogy, what would they be?

The first would be to prioritise pedagogic content and objectives. Promoting learning during class time, through participatory methods, among others, implies asking yourself what content absolutely must be transmitted, and what, on the other hand, is less important. It’s about making it a priority to concentrate on this essential core, to be sure that it is effectively transmitted. This can be done by setting up specific learning activities (working on a text, an example, a video) according to the time available. This doesn’t mean, though, staying at a superficial level of thought or knowledge. It just means being ready to adjust what will be examined in depth according to expectations, wishes, or questions asked by students during discussions.

Moreover, this process can be put in place in a progressive manner, for example, testing during one class before modifying the entire course. One very simple participatory method that you can try without any extra preparation is “think/pair/share.” Instead of just asking a question to the whole class, you can ask the question, give them individually thirty seconds or a minute (you can adjust the time) to think about it, then one minute to discuss the question with a partner, before asking students to speak up before the group. I guarantee that more hands will go up!

  • An example of an activity that you have developed and that worked particularly well:

The “think/pair/share” method was very well received. It’s one of the simple activities that you can use that can really make a difference when it comes to encouraging participation.

  • What, according to you, was less effective and why:

Certain students expressed incomprehension regarding the “discusser” role during presentations, which I will try to explain more clearly in the future. That doesn’t necessarily cast doubt on the usefulness of the method, but it is a warning that it is necessary to be as specific as possible ahead of time as to what is expected of students in terms of different types of participation.