Involving and Evolving: Student Feedback and Classroom Participation

Involving and Evolving: Student Feedback and Classroom Participation

Elizabeth Brewer


This chapter explores Critel’s conclusion that instructors should confer with their students about classroom participation, and that in doing so they can create a universally designed participation expectation. While Brewer shares Critel’s goal of designing more accessible participation expectations and options, she rejects a label of universal design for this work. She draws on critiques of universal design for learning that have been raised since Critel published her dissertation in 2012, specifically troubling universal design's assumption of an infinitely flexible and able teacher. Brewer acknowledges the limitations of universal design while retaining its goal of creating classrooms inclusive of all students, not only those with documented differences and needs. She argues that three threads of inquiry, or topoi, that overlap composition, disability studies, and educational development can direct classroom-participation practices: “nothing about us without us,” students as evaluators, and kairotic spaces. Using these topoi, she presents vignettes from her own classes as she attempts to design accessible participation strategies. She concludes that we should seek input from students on participation requirements because they can provide valuable feedback on their own experience as learners, and she offers a method for gathering this feedback using classroom assessment techniques from educational development.


Although it has been many years now, I can still clearly remember one day in my tenth-grade biology class; the teacher was lecturing on the Krebs Cycle. Biology was never my favorite subject. I was scribbling notes furiously, aware that they would become precious to me in studying for the exam. I was hunched over, with my head on my arm. Although I was listening intently and taking notes, my teacher thought otherwise about my behavior. She thought I was sleeping. This couldn’t have been further from the truth! And her response to my apparent breach of classroom conduct was to stand over my desk and scowl with disapproval. Her presence was daunting. I wasn’t performing note taking in the way she thought I should be. I didn’t say anything to explain my behavior but instead reacted to her intimidating presence. I sat up. I looked at the PowerPoint. I appeared to be paying attention. But I took less detailed notes because I wasn’t able to write as quickly once I also sat up and made eye contact with my teacher. I learned less but performed learning in a more convincing way by aligning my behavior with my instructor’s expectations.

As a teacher now in the role of building classroom community and articulating the features of appropriate participation, I remember my experience in tenth-grade biology class. For many of us who are teachers or longtime members of the academic community, the norms of classroom participation are second nature, and it is likely that we contribute to classroom environments with ease. But our students are not always insiders to academic participation norms, much less norms of participation for composition classes and individual instructors’ expectations. In her dissertation, Genevieve Critel encourages teachers to make their expectations explicit for students and to have conversations with students about classroom participation. Although these days I know better than to rest my head while taking notes in a lecture, it is because I have learned expectations that were once far from internalized.


In this chapter, I take up Critel’s conclusion that instructors should converse with their students about classroom participation. She reaches this conclusion after noticing a gap between many composition instructors’ assumptions and their students’ expectations of what class participation looks like. My chapter focuses on the unique expertise students can contribute to shaping participation expectations and how we as teachers can access their expertise.

While Critel presents this student-teacher dialogue as a universally designed participation requirement, I cite limitations of universal design and offer other models for accessible participation that encourage greater feedback from students, which I believe is Critel’s priority. Undoubtedly, our classrooms should be as accessible as possible to all learners. But in this chapter I “get real” about the avenues we might take to reach this goal, and I incorporate recent scholarship that challenges the implementation of universal design as it simultaneously respects its goal of accessibility. My goal is to provide compositionists with a framework for why we should seek input from students on participation requirements—because they can provide valuable feedback on their own experience as learners—and further, for how we might actually gather this feedback, borrowing classroom assessment techniques from educational development.

Drawing on theory that intersects composition studies, disability studies, and educational development, I present topoi on accessible participation design that go beyond unrealistic platitudes to simply design with all students in mind, and I offer vignettes from my own classroom. I argue that based on disciplines allied with composition studies, there is precedent for involving students in the creation of classroom participation requirements rather than only telling students how they must participate—or worse, assuming that students have naturalized our participation expectations.

[Go to "Student Perspectives and Universal Design "]