Mark Benton, University of Missouri, & Elizabeth Dorssom, University of Missouri
Facilitating class engagement for undergraduate students can be difficult. Undergraduates may be less inclined to engage in class discussions for a variety of reasons including, but not limited to, nervousness to engage and the feeling that their opinions are not as well-developed as their peers (Aguillon et. al 2020; Bergquist & Philips 1975; Crawford & McCloud 1990; Lee & McCabe 2021). As first-time graduate student instructors co-teaching a hyflex 50-person general prerequisite American Government class in Missouri during the fall of 2020, we were aware of the struggles of getting undergraduate students to engage in class discussions due to our experiences as teaching assistants. Therefore, we knew at the beginning of our Introduction to American Government class that we needed a way to encourage more student participation in classroom discussions.
The solution we came up with was using Padlet1, which is a digital notice board that allows students to respond to discussion questions anonymously. We were first introduced to Padlet while taking a workshop on discussing difficult topics with undergraduate students. The workshop instructor allowed us to anonymously answer her discussion questions via Padlet. Upon completing this workshop, we realized this feature might make Padlet the solution for our online discussion issues.
Padlet has a variety of designs available, but the general format remains the same. The instructor posts a discussion question on the board and then provides the link to the Padlet to the class either in a Zoom chat or email. Students can respond in real time and the instructor can read the comments aloud. We shared the Padlet on the screen so each student could read the comments, even if they were not accessing the Padlet link.
When facilitating discussions in our Introduction to American Government class, we would encourage students to either speak their opinions verbally or use the Padlet to make their opinions known as well. We would read the comments entered on Padlet aloud and made sure to mention that each of the comments on Padlet were just as good as those made orally in class. Student Padlet responses remained anonymous to other students and ourselves.
After the course was over, we reached out to students for interviews on their thoughts about anonymous engagement through Padlet. Five students agreed to interviews, which were conducted virtually over Zoom, recorded, and transcribed. We read transcripts to understand how anonymity facilitated class engagement. When we report responses, they are edited for the sake of readability and brevity, with ellipses representing omitted content. We aim to substantially preserve our participants’ voices. Interviews were between twenty and twenty five minutes.
Students revealed that self-doubt led to a fear of judgment in a way that could hinder engagement but that could be addressed through anonymity. Anonymity removes the link between students’ thoughts and their identities, which makes it impossible to judge an individual for their response. Anonymous online engagement helped students feel more comfortable engaging in class by making them unidentifiable to those who would judge them. Free of the fear of others’ judgements, students became more comfortable engaging. One student reported:
J.D.: “Just the fact that If I were wrong…I just have this huge fear of embarrassment whenever I am wrong in front of like, 20 people that I don’t know. Because I feel like I’m supposed to be smart. All these people are smart, I don’t want to look stupid….Professors, they’re like willing to work with you and help you and guide you to the right answer. But your peers, I know what it’s like to be ‘what did you just say? What type of answer are you talking about?’”
When respondents feared being judged for engagement, it usually was because of a fear of peers’ judgements rather than instructors’. The participatory challenges rising from a fear of others’ judgements in a lower-level American Government class may be especially pronounced during a presidential election year. The contentious 2020 presidential campaign and election took place during our course with political discourse covering topics including fraudulent claims about election insecurity, the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccinations, and the Supreme Court.
One student noted how the political environment and fear of peer judgment could create barriers to engagement:
C.D: “I tend to answer things a lot and participate in discussions. There’s not a lot of things that could be asked that I wouldn’t answer. The one thing in my class I wouldn’t want to answer was in my public speaking class…was in terms of vaccines and I just didn’t know the people around me. So I didn’t really want to answer that in case that would, like, make someone not like me for something that may not be a huge part of my philosophy. But I think besides that, maybe just like controversial stuff in that environment is the only thing I can think of that wouldn’t make me want to participate…”
Interviewer: So you’re not necessarily worried about if you get something wrong in front of the professor?
C.D.: “Not really. I think a lot of times for me, at least whenever I get stuff wrong, I’m usually answering that question because I think it’s right. So it’s the biggest opportunity for impactful learning. if I think something is right and I find out it’s wrong I can be corrected.”
Students generally reported little fear of consequences from their instructors for being incorrect in class. At the same time, students could be hesitant to participate because of self- doubt in themselves and fear that their answers could invite judgment from their peers. Fear of judgment is especially salient for controversial topics. Students also reported that anonymous engagement could help them engage while having marginalized identities:
K.S.: “I’m in sociology this semester and we submit anonymous questions and the professor answers. It’s enjoyable to just answer this random person’s question that you have no clue…who posted it and you don’t necessarily get to take like gender or their maybe ethnicity into stance…you don’t know what background they come from…I went to an all girls school in high school and I had originally gone to a co-ed grade school so I had been in a class setting with boys. I never really necessarily knew what it looked like without them or how they impacted my studies until I got to the all girls school and we did begin talking about topics that were maybe deeper in society…I would never stand there and like fight for what I wanted because when you did the boys would make fun of you and be ‘like oh you’re wrong, you don’t know what you’re talking about’ and I didn’t realize the impact it had on me until I went to high school…if women answer too aggressively they come off as very prudish or or almost bitchy in a sense.”
Anonymous online engagement could potentially create a more equitable course. Women often participate less in voluntary classroom interactions in a way connected to their gender identity (Aguillon et. al 2020; Lee & McCabe 2021). These responses indicate that one barrier to engagement could be fear of judgment from peers while participating in class as a marginalized person. K.S. points out that women can hang back from class discussion because of the gendered expectations of others. Anonymity could make students with these identities more comfortable because they might worry that their response might not meet ascribed expectations.
Overall, our research indicated that students’ engagement in the class might be hindered by self-doubt that creates a fear of judgment from students’ peers. By disconnecting responses from identity, students can feel more comfortable engaging in class, especially with contentious content or in spaces where directly encouraging the participation of marginalized people could be inappropriate. Anonymous online engagement can help students overcome their self-doubt and engage in class discussion.
Aguillon, S. M., Siegmund, G.-F., Petipas, R. H., Drake, A. G., Cotner, S., & Ballen, C. J. (2020). Gender differences in student participation in an active-learning classroom. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 19(2). https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.19-03-0048
Bergquist, W. H. & Philips, S.R. (1975) A Handbook for Faculty Development: Getting Students Involved in the Classroom, Council for the Advancement of Small Colleges.
Crawford, M. & Macleod, M. (1990) Gender in the College Classroom: An Assessment of the
“Chilly Climate” for Women, Sex Roles, 23, 101-122.
Lee JJ, Mccabe JM. (2021) Who Speaks and Who Listens: Revisiting the Chilly Climate in College Classrooms. Gender & Society.35(1):32-60. doi:10.1177/0891243220977141
Mark Benton & Elizabeth Dorssom are guest contributors to APSA Educate. The views expressed in the articles featured on APSA Educate are those of the authors and do not represent APSA’s views.
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