Involving and Evolving: Student Feedback and Classroom Participation

Involving and Evolving: Student Feedback and Classroom Participation

Elizabeth Brewer

Cross-Disciplinary Topoi

Given the trenchant challenges that have been posed to universal design since Critel published her dissertation, and the developing theories that preserve aspects of universal design without accepting it wholesale, I offer a resituated view of what Critel terms a "universal design participation requirement." I do this by identifying implementable practices for accessible classrooms found across disciplines that are similar in spirit to universal design. However, these practices do not require the immense flexibility and foresight universal design requires of a presumed nondisabled instructor. At its core, universal design assumes students have expertise on how they best learn and participate in classes. Universal design also aims for classrooms inclusive of all students, not only those with documented differences and needs, and it asks instructors to be flexible and responsive to changing student needs. Accepting these core principles of universal design without mandating the three principles, in what follows, I explore three threads of inquiry, or topoi, that overlap composition, disability studies, and educational development that can direct the classroom participation practices I believe Critel intended when she termed them universal design participation requirements. Like Critel, I use the term topoi to locate “common sites of invention in the conversation about student participation” (123). The topoi I describe below serve as tools for implementing what I understand to be Critel’s conception of a universally designed participation requirement—although I contend that no design is every truly equal for all participants, some practices move us closer to a more accessible and equal learning environment. The topoi I will explore are:

  1. "Nothing about Us without Us,"
  2. Students as evaluators,
  3. Kairotic spaces require participation.

These topoi are “tools” in the sense that I have used them to generate materials and templates in my own efforts at creating a more organic and transparent participation requirement. As I elaborate on each topos, I weave in these practical tools and present my own classroom materials within the context of vignettes from my composition courses. With composition instructors in mind as I write this, I attempt to provide practical strategies for creating a student-centered participation requirement, both for the classes we are currently teaching and for the classes we will plan for the future.

Coupling foundational theories from disability studies with those from educational development provides a tangible framework for teachers to create participation expectations because educational developers use specific tools to create classrooms that meet local students’ needs. An underlying topos in educational-development scholarship is that collecting student feedback on their learning in the course is beneficial for all students, not exclusively those with disabilities. This claim of a benefit to all students aligns with the goals of universal design, although its local classroom focus is better described by resonant design, and collecting student feedback as a best practice in pedagogy positions students as experts on their experience. As a result of this belief in student expertise on their classroom experience, educational developers have developed specific practices for collecting student feedback on the design of the learning environment. In composition studies, a similar valuing of student experience is characterized by Bruce Horner and Min Zhan-Lu as a “negotiation” between teachers and students—a "working with students, rather than on, at," against, or in spite of students (qtd. in Dolmage 23). In the following sections, I provide an overview of tools for enacting Critel’s approach to participation in our composition classrooms.

Topos 1: "Nothing about Us without Us"

Centering the expertise of disabled people is a foundational concept in disability studies and is encapsulated through the phrase “nothing about us without us” that grew out of the disability rights movement. This position is fundamentally about including perspectives from the people who are affected by policies. Therefore, “nothing about us without us” just as it centers lived experience as expertise on disability, can justify the need for student voices as a valuable feedback stream on how they do and should participate. The logic of the mantra from the disability rights movement applies to groups beyond those with disabilities because it shifts the power to those who have traditionally been disempowered. Of course, students in college composition classrooms are in a very different scenario than are disabled activists fighting policies and laws being made about their lives without their input, which I do not intend to conflate. But the basic move to include participants in the creation of policies and expectations that affect them applies to a range of populations.

Brenda Jo Brueggemann and her coauthors have contextualized how disability experience is a central locus of expertise in disability studies, explaining that “disability activists have often used the phrase ‘Nothing about us without us.’…This simple idea—that disabled people are the authority on their own experiences—has marked effects on the way disability is represented” (xxi). But more than altering the ways in which disability is represented in cultural artifacts, disability studies scholars and activists are rethinking common practices. The heart of “nothing about us without us” is that the experiences of people living with disabilities are invaluable data for the design of all spaces and experiences, including classrooms, curricula, and participation expectations.

An example of a “nothing-about-us-without-us” perspective on classroom participation from Melanie Yergeau demonstrates the expertise that students often bring to our classes about how they will best function in them. Yergeau remembers her own experience as a student requesting alternate ways to participate in a classroom discussion, which in a classroom that anticipated difference and sought out student perspective would be an ordinary request:

Because of my difficulties with nonverbals and auditory processing, one of my accommodation requests was a more orderly face-to-face system for class discussions, one in which I might raise my hand or type something on my laptop and show it to another person. But this particular request was not always well received. For example, in one class I took, a professor refused to call on raised hands because he felt it interrupted the natural flow of conversation. Two weeks before the term ended, the disability services office managed to convince this professor that my request didn’t lessen the rigor of the class. And this experience made me feel terrible about myself—I was somehow asking for unreasonable changes to a reasonable curriculum. (Yergeau et al.)

Yergeau’s story raises a number of what-if questions that illuminate how a “nothing-about-us-without-us” attitude from her instructor could have led to re-imagined participation expectations. What if the instructor had asked how students would prefer to participate? What if Yergeau’s own authority on her preferred participation medium had been valued? What if the instructor had collected students’ experience to inform what "natural" conversation looked like for that particular class? Students’ lived experience—with disability or otherwise—is an invaluable data source on how they can more fully participate in our classes.

In Practice

In an advanced writing course I was teaching, I organized the course around a theme: representations of health and illness in American culture. This course consisted of a large research project, with scaffolded steps. And much of the participation in class was peer review of writing; in-class prewriting, drafting, and revising; and annotating/analyzing the rhetorical moves of other writers. Students could choose to complete much of this work by either writing or typing, and they usually had time outside class to continue their work before it was graded. But in addition to these class activities, we used class time to discuss readings from our textbook, Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s They Say/I Say, and some additional readings related to our course theme. Most of the activities I structured for these reading discussions were verbal and aural, and despite incorporating small-group discussions, not all the students participated. But this lack of participation in reading discussions was just an impression I had; I didn’t know how students felt about discussing the readings and what they would prefer.

With “nothing about us without us” as my motivation, I collected midterm feedback from my students that informed how I designed discussion of the readings for the remainder of the term. I looked to a practice in educational development referred to as a small group instructional diagnosis (SGID), originally developed by D. Joseph Clark and Mark V. Redmond, which is a formative assessment of students’ learning typically conducted in the middle of the semester. SGIDs can be conducted by an educational developer, but instructors can also use the basic format of three questions to gather feedback from their own students (see Appendices A and B). The questions I asked were:

  1. What about this course and instructor is making it easier for you to learn?
  2. What is making it more difficult for you to learn?
  3. What are specific suggestions you have for improvement?

The feedback I received from students indicated that they preferred discussing thematic readings (which were often scholarly articles) in a specific way: by having time to write down answers to questions about the readings and then discussing their answers as a large group with their chairs in a circle. However, for our discussions of They Say/I Say, students preferred that we create collective notes, either on the board or in PowerPoint. I found what Darsie Bowden has shared about using SGIDs in her composition classes true, that the focus “was not on a product but on getting interested parties (students, teacher, teaching peer) to talk with each other about the class in action—or rather, in interaction” (117). Furthermore, SGIDs demonstrate to students that their input is valued. Indeed students can observe the changes in pedagogy as a result of it, as was the case in my class in which I implemented their suggestions for how they preferred to discuss readings. In the spirit of transparency, I do recognize that while I have had success using SGIDs, access needs are often not a simple either/or choice between creating notes one way or another. While one mode of note taking might benefit some students, it might create barriers for others; access needs, like multiple modalities, are sometimes incommensurable, as Stephanie Kerschbaum points out (Yergeau et al.). However, SGIDs are one tool for creating a space in which students can participate more easily, as SGIDs seek student reflection on their own learning rather than requiring students to speak in class and to be assessed on their responses without their input.

Topos 2: Students as Evaluators

A common thread in educational-development scholarship is that student evaluations of courses provide valuable insight for instructors, particularly because of students’ ability to assess aspects of the classroom environment, including participation. Educational developer Mike Theall has extensively researched student ratings, and his matter-of-fact view on students as experts is that “[s]tudents are certainly qualified to express their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the [course]…and no one else can report the extent to which the experience was useful, productive, informative, satisfying, or worthwhile.” Of course, students are not qualified to evaluate every aspect of a course. For example, students are not the best informants on how well a course aligns with a particular general education curriculum or current theories and practices in a discipline. But students are well positioned to report on their experience in the course itself and their ability to engage with the content—the possibility of class participation. By aligning similar rhetorics from disability studies and educational development, we add weight to Critel’s claim for students to co-create or at least inform participation requirements.

“Nothing about us without us” when applied to the classroom gives us theoretical motivation to integrate student feedback into our courses, and educational developers have complementary tools for enacting a feedback loop with instructors and students. The term feedback loop contains within it the idea that students and teachers set expectations for class participation, and both parties provide feedback to each other throughout the term on how participation expectations are working.

Through the creation of a feedback loop, students’ needs become integrated into everyday classroom activities, and both instructors and students provide formative assessment on the classroom environment, prior to graded assignments. The assumption is that adjustments may need to be made. And I would point out that such an assumption is very different than participation requirements established solely by the instructor. This more rigid structure is akin to my opening anecdote and to Yergeau’s story about her request for a different system for classroom discussion; the instructor assumed participation requirements were “natural” and would not be evolving throughout the term. But we cannot learn from our students by simply telling them our requirements for participation; we must do so through conversation with our students, what Jay Dolmage calls a “circuit of interchange borne of interdependency” (15) and I have referred to as a feedback loop.

In Practice

One of the first techniques I can remember trying out in an attempt at designing more accessible participation practices was simply creating (and encouraging students to use) alternative spaces for participation. I did this in my first-year writing course because it included a large population of English-as-a-second-language students, and I hoped that based on pedagogies that benefit English-language learners (Kim; Roy), creating alternative methods to engage in discussion might be beneficial to all students. My basic inclination to expand participation beyond verbal contributions came from my knowledge of universal design and practices employed by disability studies scholars and teachers, but the local ways we expanded classroom participation were generated from my students.

At two points throughout the semester, I asked students to respond to my own version of “minute papers” (see Appendix C) as educational developers Thomas A. Angelo and K. Patricia Cross have termed them. Angelo and Cross explain that minute papers ask students to write on a note card the response to a question covered in class, or an open-ended response about the most compelling topic of the day. I altered the minute paper for my own purposes, asking students how (process) instead of what (content) questions about their learning. The initial responses from students indicated they wanted discussion boards to be available on our course management site, a request I fulfilled.

However, by the second minute paper in which I asked about modes of participation, students had realized (as had I) that they were not using the discussion boards. Instead, they indicated that they preferred time in class to think and write responses to questions before verbally sharing these. I admit that if I had not asked students, I may have opted for Twitter as an alternative participation mode, thinking this option would increase opportunities for student interaction. However, for this particular group of students, participation was enabled by greater processing time, not digital spaces or greater access to their peers. When student experience is brought to bear on participation expectations, we should expect that our practices will change (Yergeau et al.). In other words, disability and difference offer critical insight into the ways in which classrooms can be more inclusive. As composition teachers, we learn from our students’ diverse ways of participating.

I favor the inclusion of students’ perspectives on classroom participation for the way in which it anticipates student diversity by inviting a conversation about it. It puts difference at the center of the conversation, as disability studies scholar Simi Linton advocates (10). Linton articulates the power designing for different needs can have, arguing that “the assumed position in scholarship has always been the male, white, non-disabled scholar,” positions that are “presumptively hegemonic because they are the assumed universal stance” (13-14). Rather than viewing disability as something abnormal and foreign that an individual brings to the classroom and that thus requires changes, add-ons, and retrofits to be made, when instructors invite students to share their preferred modes of participation, they are addressing the differences students bring to the class. Considering disability and difference becomes the instructors’ and students’ responsibility, not only the responsibility of the Office for Disability Services. Designing for different needs becomes part of best pedagogical practices, not part of making exceptions for particular students.

Topos 3: Kairotic Spaces Require Participation

Including student perspectives in the creation of participation requirements has the potential to benefit all students but is especially useful for students who do not navigate participation requirements with ease, or students whose behavior does not align with standard academic participation expectations. These individuals are unlikely to adhere to unspoken assumptions about participation, and soliciting students’ feedback on how they best engage in class can bring both students’ and teachers’ assumptions into the foreground. I find it useful to conceptualize classroom participation through Price’s theory of kairotic space, which she defines as the “less formal, often unnoticed, areas of academe where knowledge is produced and power is exchanged” (21). Kairotic spaces include classroom discussions, conversations in office hours, and questions in the hall after class; these are synchronous exchanges that are marked by an unequal power relationship and have potential consequences for students[1] success in the class. Kairotic spaces can be particularly difficult for people with mental disabilities, and classroom participation expectations must consider both this growing population of students and the many kairotic spaces in which students must participate. Of course, some instructors also identify as mentally disabled and/or have preferred ways of interacting in classroom spaces. Because the needs of instructors and students are always so diverse, if we aim for a local understanding of participation based on feedback from the particular students in our classes and our own needs, we have a better chance of meeting the needs of everyone in the classroom, including those with visible and invisible disabilities.

As I have argued thus far, collecting feedback from students is a key practice in negotiating the boundaries for classroom participation; when teachers collect feedback from their students, they communicate their willingness to change based on the input from students. Scholars in disability studies including Dolmage, Price, and Patricia Dunn conceptualize such flexibility and ongoing adjustment as part of a commitment to access. For Price, “Access means designing spaces—including kairotic professional spaces—in ways that are flexible, multimodal, and responsive to feedback” (my emphasis, 130). However, this flexibility on the part of the instructor is not infinite and in fact requires instructors to reflect on the feedback to check both what is possible for them to change and what they are willing to change given their goals for the course. Price in particular views feedback in a global sense as a channel between students and teachers in which the practices of the classroom can be commented on. While feedback is commonly collected at the end of a term with the intention for future improvement, both disability theory and educational-development practices advocate for feedback collection that will benefit those students currently in the class.

In Practice

In all of my writing classes, I have adopted the practice of holding one-on-one conferences with students at least once during the semester. Writing conferences are a discipline-specific example of kairotic spaces in which students and teachers are expected to exchange knowledge in the moment. During one semester of a first-year writing course, I was holding conferences in a shared office space. After one of my students left the office following what I thought was a productive conference on his research proposal, one of my colleagues commented that he had seen this student in the restroom prior to our conference. Intrigued at this mention, I asked my colleague to elaborate, and he said my student had looked very nervous, presumably about our conference. There are many unknowns about this student’s particular situation, but it still serves as a reminder to me that encounters outside the classroom can be seemingly higher stakes performances of knowledge for some students. Although I might outline activities in detail during class and give students time to write their thoughts before verbally responding, these practices are less common in the unscripted office visits. Why didn’t I apply student feedback practices to the participation I expected from students during conferences and office hours?

Although I have not made a rubric for office hour visits (as they are ungraded), my student’s uneasiness about expectations motivated me to be more explicit about how office hour time can be used (i.e. students can submit writing beforehand, bring writing in process, come with specific questions, or just check in without an agenda). My move toward explicitness in communicating how office hours function as kairotic spaces in which student participation can take many forms led me to research the motivation teachers have for creating rubrics for participation. Educational development scholars John C. Bean and Dean Peterson write, for example, “Our premise in this article is that the quality of student performance during class discussions can be improved if the instructor develops consistent and articulable standards for assessing classroom participation.” The term articulable is a key component of making kairotic spaces more accessible to those students who have not naturalized behavior in these spaces. Instead of a rubric for the writing conferences, I developed an assignment guideline sheet (Appendix D) intended to demystify the writing conference for students, while authorizing students to use the time as is most helpful to them.

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[1] The Chronicle of Higher Education reported in 2013 that approximately 25% of undergraduate students in the United States have a diagnosed mental disorder.[Return]