SAGE Musings: Cultivating Students' Voices

Carol Ormand, SERC, Carleton College
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published Dec 7, 2017 10:29am

Several articles related to inclusive teaching have popped into my inbox recently. One of the themes of these articles that I find interesting is the importance of hearing from all of the students in our classrooms. Talking about science is one of the ways our students take ownership of their knowledge, and of course asking questions is one of the ways people can clarify their understanding. Hearing our students talk about science is also a great way to find out what they do and don't know and understand. Yet, in most classrooms, a small minority of students tend to answer our questions and dominate large group discussions. Moreover, these few students are unlikely to be representative of the diversity within the classroom. What can instructors do to cultivate every student's voice?

Here are four strategies for making sure that every student has the opportunity to talk about science, in your classroom. I learned of one of them many years ago, in the Cutting Edge workshop for early career geoscience faculty members; I read about another in the Tomorrow's Professor blog years ago; and the other two are from the articles I've come across this fall.

  • Think-Pair-Share is one of many ways to incorporate active learning opportunities within a lecture, and it's a relatively easy one to implement. It also requires every student to talk about science with at least one of their classmates. Here's how it works: the instructor poses a question to the class. This is typically a question that the instructor thinks students ought to be able to answer correctly if they understood the material that the instructor presented immediately prior to posing the question. Students are instructed to think about the question for a brief period of time, usually no more than a couple of minutes. Then they discuss their answers to the question with one or two of their neighbors, again for a fairly brief period of time. Finally, the instructor asks for volunteers or calls on individual students to answer the question. This method could be combined with the "progressive stack."
  • The Progressive Stack involves intentionally changing the order in which you call on students in a discussion. Rather than calling on students in the order in which they volunteer to speak, you start by calling on the students whose voices have, traditionally, been marginalized. That means that students who belong to underrepresented minority groups, students with disabilities, transgender students, women, and so on, have the chance to speak before able-bodied white male students. You still call on everyone who wants to contribute to a discussion, but this method makes it more likely that you will hear from a diverse subset of your students. To facilitate this, when you pose a question, you wait - quite possibly for a longer time than you normally would - and write down the names of everyone who wants to contribute to the discussion. When someone raises their hand, you add them to the list. When you choose whom to call on, you elevate to the top of the list those students whose voices aren't often heard, including any of your students who haven't spoken up in class before, or haven't done so recently.
  • Losing Your Voice involves, literally, teaching without talking. Joseph Finckel "invented" this technique when he lost his voice one semester; he found it so effective that he now "loses" his voice on purpose. It seems fairly obvious that if we want our students to speak more, we have to speak less. Yet making that happen can be challenging. Finckel prepares a series of discussion questions or activities for the day that he has lost his voice, maximizes his use of non-verbal communication, and writes on the board only as a last resort. Read more about it in his very brief blog post, The Silent Professor. This strategy could easily be combined with "complete turn-taking."
  • Complete Turn-Taking is a mechanism for structuring small group discussions in a way that explicitly gives all students equal time. Here's how it works: students come to class with two or three written questions about the course material. They form groups of four students. You can assign students to groups or let them form their own; there are advantages to both, so you might do some of each over the course of a semester. "At the beginning, one student has up to one minute to pose their question, during which time no one is allowed to interrupt. They signal that they're done by explicitly saying, 'I'm finished.' Then, the student to the left has up to one minute, also uninterrupted, to say what they think. They also signal that they're done with, 'I'm finished.' This continues until everyone has had their minute of uninterrupted time, then I give the groups two minutes of open discussion. This is one round. Once that's over, the group starts over, in round two, with a question from student #2 (to the left of the first student), and the activity proceeds as before" (McKinnon, 2013).

You might be wondering whether such strategies are worth the time they take. Time that students spend talking in the classroom is time that you aren't "teaching." Is there really a need for these activities? Consider these two quotes:

"In my own classroom, I often ask my students to imagine a world in which 80 percent of the national political leaders are men, 95 percent of the prominent business leaders are men, 70 percent of the established scientists and engineers are men, and 85 percent of the police officers are men. If you grew up in such a world, I ask students, what would your idea of an authority figure be? Wouldn't it be natural — having seen positions of authority held mostly by men your whole life — to associate the masculine with the authoritative? Under those circumstances, wouldn't you, all else being equal, see a man as more qualified than a woman? Of course, this imagined world is our own" (Gooblar, 2017).

"... [K-12] teachers spend up to two thirds of their time talking to male students; they also are more likely to interrupt girls but allow boys to talk over them. Teachers also tend to acknowledge girls but praise and encourage boys. They spend more time prompting boys to seek deeper answers while rewarding girls for being quiet. Boys are also more frequently called to the front of the class for demonstrations. When teachers ask questions, they direct their gaze towards boys more often, especially when the questions are open-ended. Biases such as these are at the root of why the United States has one of the world's largest gender gaps in math and science performance. Until they view their videotaped interactions, teachers believe they are being balanced in their exchanges" (Chemaly, 2015; emphasis mine).

Although both of these quotes are about gender, there are equally pervasive and pernicious stereotypes and biased behaviors related to race and ethnicity. The strategies described above are ways that you can give all of your students a chance to be heard - something that might be a new experience for the women and underrepresented minority students in your classroom, and likely for other marginalized groups as well.

What strategies do you use to cultivate your students' voices?


Chemaly, S., 2015. All Teachers Should Be Trained To Overcome Their Hidden Biases. Time, Feb. 12, 2015. Retrieved from on Nov. 29, 2017.

Finckel, J., 2014. The Silent Professor. Tomorrow's Professor, posting 1513. Retrieved from on Nov. 29, 2017.

Gannon, K., 2017. The Progressive Stack and Standing for Inclusive Teaching. The Tattooed Professor blog, Oct. 20, 2017. Retrieved from on Nov. 29, 2017.

Gooblar, D., 2017. Yes, You Have Implicit Biases, Too. Chronicle of Higher Education, Nov. 20, 2017. Retrieved from on Nov. 29, 2017.

Macdonald, R.H., R. Teed, G. Hoyt, J. Imazeki, B. Millis and J. Vazquez-Cognet, 2017. Think-Pair-Share, Pedagogy in Action. Retrieved from on Nov. 29, 2017.

McKinnon, R., 2013. Teaching Activity: Complete Turn Taking. New APPS: Art, Politics, Philosophy, Science blog, Oct. 7, 2013. Retrieved from on Nov. 29, 2017.

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