Creating a collaborative classroom

This semester, I am a lecture TA again, this time teaming up with Joss Ives (@jossives) in Physics 101 (Energy and Waves). Together, we have decided to again implement the pre-class overheads in the lecture, intending to use them as a tool to promote student discussions. We feel that they can be useful for a variety of reasons, including, but perhaps not limited to:

  • Giving students another chance to have a discussion using physics terms. (Practice behaving like physicists.)
  • Giving students a chance to try to apply the physics to real life objects and to make connections to things outside the classroom.
  • Encouraging students to bring some of their prior knowledge into the classroom.

If you recall, I spearheaded the use of the pre-class overhead in Physics 100 last semester. However, for a variety of reasons, most of the instructor’s attempts to instigate a class-wide discussion was met with mute resistance, and the images were mostly used as a lead-in to the material of the day. I feel that, in this limited role, the images still made a contribution to the classroom. (None of the students I asked said they hated them.) However, if students could be activated, I believe the images could be used more effectively, in terms of the three points described above.

In an effort to fully realize the potential of the pre-class images, Joss and I decided that we would put explicit focus on developing the culture of class-wide discussion from the very beginning of the term. In addition, we pledged to carefully observe and evaluate Joss’ discussion facilitation techniques in order to consciously work on getting better at encouraging student contributions in both the start-of-class discussion and throughout the lecture.

In preparation for this, I did a little bit of pre-semester reading about setting up classroom norms and engaging students in the class. Here, I report strategies, discussed in two sources, that we will pay close attention to as we strive to create a collaborative classroom.

Resource 1

First, in “The construction of different classroom norms during Peer Instruction: Students perceive differences”, by Chandra Turpen and Noah Finkelstein, instructor behaviours and trends while facilitating clicker questions are studied and connected to student survey responses about the student-perceived levels of faculty-student collaboration, student-student collaboration, and emphasis on sense-making vs. answer-making. Within each of these three domains, concrete behaviours are suggested that are associated with positive student perceptions.

1. For students to perceive a higher level of faculty-student collaboration (for students to feel less awkward asking the instructor questions in class), the instructor should interact with students while they are discussing clicker questions as often as possible, and in various ways, including:

  • Moving around the classroom and being within earshot or easy access of the students (i.e. leaving the front of the class).
  • Responding to student questions.
  • Instigating discussions with students.

In addition, while going over the response to a clicker question, the instructor should vary the technique used, alternately:

  • Describing the expert solution.
  • Soliciting student responses to help describe the solution.
  • Soliciting student responses to describe and evaluate the correctness of the solution.

2. For students to perceive a higher level of student-student collaboration (for them to feel comfortable discussing the course content with peers), the instructor should:

  • Have ‘low stakes’ grading practices for clicker questions (i.e. not marking for correctness).
  • Consistently and explicitly encourage peer collaboration.
  • Allow significant and dedicated time for peer collaboration.
  • Model scientific discourse in interactions with students.

3. For students to perceive a higher emphasis on sense-making (rather than answer-making), the professor should:

  • Have ‘low stakes’ grading practices for clicker questions.
  • Consistently and explicitly emphasize sense-making and reasoning.
  • Provide opportunity for peer discussion of physical reasoning (i.e by using conceptual questions).
  • Provide opportunity for discussion of physics reasoning during whole-class discussions.
  • Model scientific discourse in interactions with students.

Resource 2

Second, from the CWSEI one-pager entitled “Basic instructor habits to keep students engaged”, some specific points that caught my eye as being important include:

  • Make sure to involve the back of the room. Go straight there at the start of peer discussions. Make sure to repeat student questions for the back and to solicit responses from the back.
  • While talking, stop and ask for questions, waiting long enough for responses.
  • Be wary of falling into a one-on-one discussion with a student that asks a question in the lecture. Sometimes offer the question to the whole class before answering it.
  • Solicit and share student thinking in evaluating clicker solutions.
  • Be welcoming and do not send messages that might suppress student engagement.

Questions for the reader

  • Would you add anything to the list of possible benefits of using pre-class images?
  • What useful resources can you share about classroom culture?
  • In your experience, which behaviour of those above is most important in setting up the classroom culture?
  • As and instructor, how do you get students to be comfortable interacting with you?


  1. Jared. I love that you pulled all these points together and think it is a great list to go back to now and again. Kind of like an interactive engagement check-up.

    As you know Jared, this course has been quite the adjustment for me. I am used to classes of 36 or sometimes 54 and also used to have 1.5x as many lecture hours for a course with the same amount of content. Looking through your list, these are the places where I think I am doing the poorest job:

    1. Model scientific discourse in interactions with students – I have to revisit the paper to remind myself exactly what is meant by this, but I’m pretty sure it isn’t currently happening in the class.

    2. Make sure to involve the back of the room. Go straight there at the start of peer discussions. Make sure to repeat student questions for the back and to solicit responses from the back – Fortunately Jared, I have you there to act as the voice for the students at the back and you let me know if something I am up to at the front isn’t working for those at the back, you gently draw my attention to the back to involve them in the discussions and are engaging with the back during clicker and worksheet questions if i am not there. But on my own I am doing a poor job of involving those at the back. The most immediate thing I want to work on is facilitating the discussion of the clicker questions from the middle of the room.

    3. Be wary of falling into a one-on-one discussion with a student that asks a question in the lecture – Good gravy I am getting caught by this one all the time. This is where the briskness of this course, as compared to what I am used to, is really posing a challenge to me. I love engaging with students one-on-one while a clicker question is running even if it means that the clicker question is open longer than need, but time is too tight to do this here.

  2. Hi Joss, thanks for the discussion on here! With more lectures for the same amount of content, did you leave less of the content to homework than is the standard here?

    My comments on your points:
    1. If I remember correctly, ‘scientific discourse’ was more like listening to and evaluating different perspectives. At the least in individual conversations, students don’t seem to mind divulging their thinking to me. I think the participation we get in the class during whole-class discussions is pretty good too, based on my experience. However, there aren’t too many students clamouring to give answers when they’re unsure of their thinking… I’m not sure if we could expect more, though.

    2. After you posted this comment, you did a great job running some questions from the middle of the room! I’ll make sure to hang around the computer so I can support you by circling multiple choice answers when you move up there again. Perhaps a couple more questions directed specifically at the back of the room each week could help also? (i.e. By specifically requesting that someone at the back of the room should answer.)

    3. That’s a tough balance that I’m lucky I don’t have to worry about – I love spending a lot of time with individual interactions. It’s easy for me to continue until I get cut off by lecture starting again. I believe the CWSEI tip was also warning about falling into an effective one-on-one conversation during a whole-class mode of discussion, where the instructor might go back and forth with one student a few times, without letting the whole class in on the discourse.

    Overall, I think we’re doing fairly well on all these points.

  3. […] Physics 101 (Energy and Waves) this semester, we are continuing to use pre-class overheads, as described in my previous post. Since Joss and I tend to bang our heads together for a fair bit of time in order to decide what […]

  4. […] are notes I scratched down at some point in the past few months. Some might relate to my previous blog post on collaborative classrooms (and the references therein), but most of the credit should go to my fantastic colleagues at UBC. […]

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