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Gender Dynamics in the Classroom

Teaching to Promote Gender Equality

Inequities in teacher attention and class participation begin long before a particular student walks into your classroom; however, these patterns can be changed. The studies mentioned previously, which showed male students receiving more classroom attention from both male and female teachers, also found teachers who observed these behaviors on videotape and participated in structured training changed their behaviors. Afterwards, the teachers called on male and female students in nearly equal proportions and gave more precise responses to all students’ comments, thus helping them further develop their thoughts (How Schools 69, Sadker, “Sexism in the Classroom” 515, Sandler 14). Students responded to these extra measures quite positively, which benefited the overall quality of class discussion. In particular, students’ behaviors changed in accordance with the instructors’, male and female students began to participate in the class in nearly equal proportions, and all the students responded more frequently and more accurately to the teacher’s comments (Sadker, “Confronting” 183 and “Sexism in the Classroom” 515).

Paying particular attention to classroom dynamics can profit all the students in the course and result in a higher level of intellectual performance. For example, the “chilly climate” reported in science or engineering courses can be ameliorated without weakening the quality of instruction. Courses similar to those Tobias studied can and are being reconfigured to meet a range of learning preferences, proving that the sciences are not isolated or impersonal disciplines, since outside of the classroom many projects are accomplished in teams. Further, placing knowledge in a social context helps to show students how their learning connects to the world around them and how such ideas are actually practiced in the outside world.

Promoting equity in the classroom does not necessarily mean treating all students equally. That is, though it does mean giving all students equal opportunities to succeed, it may also mean giving some students more encouragement to perform in class or structuring your class in ways that promote greater participation from a wider number of students. Explicitly encouraging quieter students by calling on them or by placing them in group settings where participation seems easier or less threatening is one example of how ensuring equity sometimes calls for additional measures. Paying closer attention to gender dynamics in the classroom leads both to better teaching and to better learning for male and female students.

General Principles

  • Give all students equal attention in advising and mentoring.
  • Don’t overlook capable but quiet students.
  • Revise curricula if necessary to include female experiences and to include them in more than just stereotypical ways.
  • Give each student equal attention and equally specific feedback.
  • Monitor classroom dynamics to ensure that discussion does not become dominated by verbally aggressive students.
  • Vary the structure of the classroom to include more than just competitive modes of learning.

Specific Teaching Strategies

Syllabus:

Discuss your expectations for participation at the beginning of the course.
 Include them in the syllabus, and consider making participation count toward the final grade.

1. You might announce that you do not expect every student to participate in every class, but that you do expect everyone to participate at some time and that students who find this difficult should speak to you privately (Krupnick).

2. To help ensure that more assertive students do not dominate, you might also announce that you expect all students to listen carefully to one another and periodically encourage such listening during the course.

3. Be explicit about how and when students may respond (i.e., if they should raise their hands before speaking, reframe each others’ statements before replying, or even if it is permissible to speak before they have the final answers). Stress that it is as important to ask a question as to make a statement.

Discussion and Lecture:

Establish class norms or ground rules for discourse (e.g., Critical analysis must be of ideas not persons, etc.)early in the semester. Enlisting the students in creating and enforcing these rules helps create an environment in which students feel safe enough to take intellectual risks, even if they make mistakes in the process.

Call all students by name and attribute students’ contributions to class discussion by name. 

Use examples that include men and women in other than merely stereotypical ways.

Avoid making any student a spokesperson for his/ her gender.

Don’t single out female students as if you expect them to have difficulty (as in consistently asking one woman in the class, “Do you understand, Sharon?”) This is especially problematic in courses with predominantly male enrollments.

After you ask questions, look around the room to make eye contact with both male and female students. Use this eye contact as nonverbal encouragement for student participation. Check yourself to see that you do not look primarily at those students closest to you.

Watch students for nonverbal clues that may signal interest or disagreement, and call on them in addition to those who raise their hands.

Be aware of the nonverbal clues you may be giving to students as they speak. Your nonverbal messages (i.e., leaning forward, which suggests interest, or flipping through papers and looking at your watch, which may be seen as signs of disinterest) may have an important effect on which students speak again.

If you find that you consistently lecture or sit next to certain students, move to new locations, or move around the room as you speak. If you move from group to group of students during laboratory projects, check to make sure you spend as much time among groups containing female students as among predominately male groups.

Increase your wait time for responses. Average teacher wait time is one second, but a wait time of three to five seconds produces significantly more, higher quality responses among a wider variety of students.
If necessary, ask your question, and then count off the seconds to yourself before you call on students. Other ways to increase wait time include having all the students prepare brief written responses to the question, and then picking someone who might normally be hesitant to speak to report to the class what he/she has written. Or, you can form students into pairs, and have them briefly share responses with each other before you call on individual students to report their ideas to the class (a.k.a. “Think-Pair-Share”; see “Introductory Focused Discussion Pairs,” Johnson et al. 5:13).
Don’t always call on the student who raises his/ her hand the fastest or who solves the problem first. You can tell students that you will not call on anyone for several seconds so they can think through their answers. This prepares them for the pause that follows, encourages everyone to think, and allows everyone to formulate a fully developed response.

Return to the remarks of students who start to speak but are interrupted or who drop their point before finishing. Give such students space in the discussion to finish their thoughts (“That’s an interesting point, and we will get back to it, but I think Phil still has something he wants to say”). Alternatively, you can credit the student’s remarks and tie them into the current discussion (“As Atalya said earlier, . . .” or “That sounds similar to the comment that Kamila brought up earlier. Would you like to comment on X, Kamila?”). This technique is also helpful if some students’ comments tend to be ignored.

When appropriate, emphasize students’ comments by putting them on the board.

Respond specifically to students’ comments. Ask them to develop and extend their thoughts. If a student gives you a brief “yes/no” response to a question, you can ask them for greater development by asking “Why is X true?” or “How does X work?” or “Can you explain that process further?” Studies have shown that teachers react 14 to students’ comments more than 50% by affirming them verbally or nonverbally (Sadker, “Sexism in the Classroom” 513). Such acceptance, while important, helps the student much less than directed and specific feedback. In the video, The Art of Discussion Leading: A Class with Chris Christensen, Christensen, a legendary professor at Harvard’s Business School, models effective feedback techniques. (Video available for viewing at TRC)

Reply to the quality and content of students’ remarks, not to how confidently these remarks may be stated.

Let your students know it is as important to follow up on and extend others’ comments and arguments as to criticize them. Make classroom discussion more than purely a debate, where one side “wins” or “loses.”

Use discussion activities in which everyone participates. For instance, you might ask students to raise their hands in response to an issue (“How many people think X?”), and then use the poll results to open discussion. Alternatively, each student could write briefly in response to your initial question. To start class discussion, you can then call on certain students to read their responses aloud, or students can discuss these possible responses in small groups (for further information, see Johnson and Davidson).

Classroom Dynamics:

When students view laboratory demonstrations as a group, make sure smaller and shorter students do not become shouldered to the side or hindered from full view (Hall and Sandler 16).

Be aware that women from an underrepresented group may feel the effects of gender, ethnicity and race in different ways. Don’t assume that all the female students in your classroom have similar thoughts, attitudes or experiences or that “concerns about gender will be more pressing for your women students than those of race, class, religion, or national origin” (Tips for Teachers: Gender 3).

Assessment: 

Use frequent brief feedback techniques to gauge students’ understanding. For instance, you can assign a one-minute paper by taking the last few minutes of class to have students write their anonymous answers to a question such as “What was the main point you learned today?” or “What is your main question about today’s material?” Read these responses and respond to them in the next class (Light 36; Angelo).

Ask for comments about the course at midterm or add questions to the standard final evaluation to elicit students’ perceptions about class participation (e.g., “Do you feel comfortable participating in the class? Why or why not? What would make you more comfortable?”). For final evaluations you may wish to consult with your department concerning ways to add additional questions to the standard or on-line forms while following departmental guidelines. As one easy way of obtaining information, you can have a consultant from the Teaching Resource Center come to your class to conduct a Teaching Analysis Poll (TAP), a thirty-minute procedure that collects majority student opinion about the course.

Early in the semester set up a system that will help you see how much attention you pay to students and that will highlight which students speak, and for how long.You might make notes during or immediately after a class or a series of classes about who contributed to class discussion: in what order, in what depth, whether he/she was interrupted, whether he/she spoke again. Look over your notes for patterns of unequal participation. More easily, you can have a colleague sit in and observe, or you can have a TRC consultant discuss with you an observed or videotaped class. (For further information on TAPs or videotaping, see “Consultations” on the TRC website http://cte.virginia.edu.)

Classroom Structure:

In the first week or two of the course, arrange to have every student talk briefly in class or in small groups.Students can introduce themselves to the class or to each other or report group solutions of problems. Whatever you do, set up a structure that helps everyone say something out loud, if not to the entire class then to a small group. Studies have shown that a student who does not talk in the first two weeks of class is much less likely to speak up later.

Give students sufficient instructions about how to complete assignments or solve problems on their own rather than taking over and completing the project for them.

Give students sufficient opportunity to practice the hands-on skills necessary for your course. Some women in science and engineering courses, for instance, may be less experienced with course procedures or equipment than other students. Female students tend to take fewer mathematics or science courses in high school, and they may be less likely to choose hobbies that introduce them to technical or mechanical equipment. Providing sufficient time for observing experiments allows all students to feel comfortable with the required instruments (Rosser 59).