This is the third in a series of blog postings contributed by the Anthropology Teaching Forum (ATF) at the University of Texas, San Antonio. The first post introduced the ATF and its goal of building a strong teaching culture to match the research focus of the graduate program. The second post discussed strategies for engaging large classes. The discussion below on student empowerment is inspired by a recent talk given by Emily Lloyd, a PhD candidate and adjunct instructor at UTSA. Emily has compiled a list of references below as a helpful starting place for others seeking inspiration for empowerment in the classroom.
What is an Empowered Student?
Emily Lloyd kicked off our recent discussion with a definition of empowered students as “motivated, confident, and prepared.” It’s not always easy to come by these students, especially at large state institutions like UTSA. So where can we get some? Obviously, that’s the lazy response. The more important question is how can we create an environment in our classrooms to develop such qualities and “increase [students’] sense of self-efficacy and energy” (Weimer 2014)?
Emily provided a good framework for empowering classroom environments based on Cowdery (n.d.) and Weimer (2014), starting with clearly defined student and teacher roles and expectations. Typically, the syllabus functions as the main form of communication for these. We discussed how more overt or interesting ways of integrating these definitions and expectations into the first weeks of class might have better results. I mentioned my new first class strategy of playing a “Cards Against the Syllabus” game inspired by Cards Against Humanity to explicitly discuss roles, conduct, and expectations in a fun way.
The Role of Competence
Emily also noted that empowering classes should have both support and sanctions for work. Weimer (2014) highlights that students need to feel “competent” in their role, which means that instructors should celebrate successes to help students develop confidence in their competence. Emily described a new and rather simple celebratory method integrated into online course managers such as Blackboard Learn. Instructors can send “kudos” to individual students via email with personalized messages. We also discussed the importance of feedback on assignments, but more significantly, feedback students actually see, and to which they can respond. Guillaume Pages, UTSA PhD candidate and adjunct instructor, recently instituted an interesting feedback strategy. He encouraged students to come to office hours during finals week to pick up all graded work in exchange for extra credit. He had a great turn out and this facilitated personal discussions about student successes and areas for improvement. One-on-one feedback can make a student feel personally encouraged and more than a name on a roster. I also received a great deal of enthusiasm from students about one-on-one mini meetings during in-class project workshops. Each student and I huddled around the computer to discuss their recent project drafts. I was able to express my support and critique of their drafts so much more efficiently by sitting with each one of them for five minutes than I could have done by scrawling words over their papers. Further, I felt much more able to express my concern for those students who had not shown much effort and provided them the opportunity to ask the questions or discuss the circumstances that may have been halting their progress. It was much more difficult for these students to ignore my feedback.
Competence can also be developed through course design. Emily emphasized the usefulness of “scaffolding” assignments by repeating them throughout the course (such as weekly response essays, or quizzes). Instructors can scaffold by providing a lot of description for the first attempt, detailing steps, resources, and actions. Later on, instructors can require students to identify these steps for themselves. By the end of the term, when they receive an assignment without these directions, students should feel competent because of their familiarity with the process and their success in previous attempts. Competence can also be inspired by modeling, either by the instructor in a task, or by using previous assignments as examples. Cowdery (n.d.) notes that access to such resources is empowering to students. To feel competent, students must feel they have the “tools” (including space and enough time) to complete whatever is tasked to them.
Empowering environments should also be associated with social-emotional peer support and a sense of community. Our previous ATF discussion on engaging large classes also emphasized this point. Getting students to feel like they are part of a classroom community can be a building block to engaged and empowered students. Further, this sense of community should be integrated with instructor leadership (Cowdery n.d.). An instructor is not just a font of knowledge. As Emily noted, the instructor shares the vision of empowerment and values student input. For students to truly engage and be empowered, they must feel that their contribution is a valuable aspect of the class. Here, discussion and course feedback are extremely important. One way to make this happen would be to ask for comments on the course at mid-semester and then attempt to implement student suggestions thereafter. Students recognize these efforts of an empowered leader and thus have a model for becoming empowered themselves.
The Importance of Choice
Emily also emphasized that empowering environments offer choices. They are not a one-size-fits-all education. A way to empower students and model good decision-making in life is to provide options for content goals, paths to achieve goals, materials and resources, and group composition. Lori Barkwill Love (PhD student and UTSA teaching fellow) employs Prezi software to construct multiple paths for students to choose. Do you want to answer three questions on this or five question on that? Do you want to discuss this or that topic first? Small group decisions like this can empower students as a community and prepare them for whatever may come. Emily provided many possibilities for integrating choice into courses such as changing up quiz formats, offering class “tracks” where students can determine how best they can personally master course content, and scheduling independent study days at the end of content sections that allow them to pursue their interests and determine how they want to go about learning. Providing choice also shows the students that the instructor is interested in their opinion and that they are competent enough to make decisions.
Emily highlighted the importance of reflection to discuss and assess meaningfulness with students. Empowered students feel that what they do has a purpose. Instructors can incorporate tasks that make an impact and matter outside the classroom to promote socially conscientious meaningfulness. Service learning is committed to such ideals. Emily also noted how instructors can incorporate smaller activities such as using freerice.org to get students involved in world hunger efforts, or penguinwatch.org for students interested in biological/environmental outreach, or Kiva to get the class community involved in international small business loans. Each of these impactful activities can be easily be related to class content.
These methods for empowering students are important and should certainly be part of every classroom environment. However, I want to recognize that a classroom where each and every student is fully empowered remains an ideal. It would be difficult to find even an advanced graduate seminar at the most rigorous institution in which every student bears all the qualities of a fully empowered student. Students are in-progress, and we can’t expect to convert each one, checking each box for “empowered” at the end of the semester. Rather, we should recognize that each student comes to us at different stages in their own personal trajectory of education and development, and they will display different degrees of empowerment. Our classes should provide the environment for development along all stages of empowerment so students can make progress throughout their student career. We should embrace the diversity of empowered-ness and perhaps use it as a platform for peer-to-peer learning and/or mentoring as well as for our engagement with our students as individuals.
Cowdery, J.R. (n.d.) Empowering Students through Fostering Empowered Teachers. http://www.muskingum.edu/dept/education/downloads/EJ1Cowdery.doc
Weimer, M. (2014) What’s an Empowered Student? Faculty Focus. http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-professor-blog/whats-empowered-student/
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