Why students don’t raise hands in my classroom

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People learn when they are engaged. So, then, what is engagement? Don’t hold me to this definition, but I think it’s when students are actively thinking about a topic. Engagement is not just paying attention. It happens when concepts are evaluated, synthesized, compared, and all that. Engagement is when the mind is actively churning on the topic at hand.

Effective teaching happens when we do things that promote engagement, and ineffective teaching is when we do things that allow students to disengage.

Whenever I’ve had any kind of professional development about engagement, one of the first topics that gets mentioned is raising hands in class.  And the message is always the same:

No raise hands good. Raise hands bad.

And I agree with this.

It’s what K-12 teachers are taught when they’re being trained as teachers, and the concept is just as relevant for university faculty as well.

When we ask a question to a class, we shouldn’t do it in a way that requires only a small number of students to volunteer. This allows the entire class an opportunity to put their brains into cruise control. Some students, regardless of engagement, will never raise their hands. Over time, they’ll know that they aren’t required to engage, and they might not.

Good teaching keeps everybody on their toes and requires everyone to think. Calling out questions and asking people to raise their hands with the answer is the opposite of requiring everybody to think.

I want my students to emerge from the classroom thinking that they’ve had an exhausting mental workout. A gym for the brain. Zumba instructors don’t call on certain members of class participate. Likewise, in my classroom, everybody has to dance.

There is a variety of ways to ask questions and make sure that everybody is engaged. One great way is a think-pair-share. I know some people who use set of index cards and draw student names randomly for every question. If I don’t want to make a big deal about a question, sometimes I just call on a student arbitrarily. Sometimes I make a point of calling on a student who doesn’t appear to be engaged, though if this happens too often then some students might (correctly) think that they’re being singled out unfairly.

And, of course, the entire rationale behind clickers is that they prevent the disengagement that happens when only asking a small number of students raise their hands. But you can engage students just as well without clickers, but you don’t get the data in a digital format. In a very large lecture, using clickers could be an effective strategy if classroom management of group work is difficult to manage.

Another reason to not ask students to raise hands is that there is a clear gender bias at work. Men are far more likely to raise hands, and with many instructors, men are more likely to be called. So, by asking students to raise hands, men are more likely to be engaged by the instructor than women. This, obviously, is no good.

Do you have other ways of asking questions to the class that keep everyone engaged?