Treating All Students Equitably In Terms Of Teacher Attention

It stands to reason that treating all students equitably in terms of teacher attention and behavior would increase the academic achievement of the students in general and improve classroom climate; this reasoning is supported by a plethora of research. The research also confirms a commonly held view that male students get more attention than female students, regardless of the teacher’s gender. Racial/ethnic attributes in students are also linked to differentiated teacher expectations. To summarize this research in broad strokes, the Pygmalion effect is widespread and, ironically, is communicated to students in ways that would otherwise be effective teaching practices, if only carried out equity.


The following descriptions of teaching practices will be couched in a traditional lecture-discussion model of teaching. This does not mean that I present this practice as being the most effective, but I do believe it is a commonly used mode of instruction. Secondly, these practices are not limited to lecture-discussion; they are widely used in more inquiry and experientially based instruction.


Equal Distribution of Response Opportunities. Simply put, this is directing questions toward all students, not just the ones who volunteer or those who the professor feels most comfortable in querying. It is my observation that teachers at all levels have a knee-jerk reaction to call on a student who raises his or her hand. This is a habit that can be un-learned, and it is a habit one is wise to address with the students. I generally use the initial meeting of a course with a comment that goes something like this: “I want to interact with everyone in this class, not just those who are the most eager. This means that I will be calling on everyone, not just those of you who raise your hands or volunteer comments. I promise not to attempt to embarrass you or put you down if I call on you and you are reluctant to respond. However, I reserve the right to help you respond by following up on my initial question with some leading comments. You’ll find my behavior a little unusual, but you’ll get used to it. ”


Delving, Probing, and Correcting. Certainly we all hope to be adroit enough to follow up a question that confounds our students with one that is simpler to respond to, or, if a student has responded and we want them to expand upon their idea, we hope to use Socratic questioning or something closely akin. Sometimes a student response is just off the mark, and we need to gently let the student know that she or he is going down a fruitless direction. However, as the research cited earlier has established, we are not equitable in these practices. It has been my observation in working with other teachers and analyzing my own teaching that this is particularly true when a teacher is working with a student perceived as less able. For a number of reasons, we feel that we do not want to embarrass the student in question, but if it is a more able student, we are more prone to pursue our questioning or correct a response. To be equitable, a teacher needs to be conscious of this tendency and monitor his or her behavior. This does not mean that all initial questions and therefore their subsequent follow-ups are equally suited for all our students. One would be wise to address simpler questions to less able students, although the issue of gender should have nothing to do with the difficulty of the question. And this does not mean that higher-level questions should be reserved for the students we perceive as the brightest.


Higher-level Questioning. I will not discuss the issue of higher level questioning in detail, but I will define higher-level questioning as those inquiries which ask the student to go beyond factual information that he/she has (or should have) read, seen, heard, or whatever as part of the preparation for a given class session. For example, a history teacher might ask her or his students, “Why did public opinion react so strongly to the Watergate cover-up?” This would be a lower-level question if an appropriate response were to be found in the assigned reading. However, were the same question to be asked and the answer had to be pieced together from several sections of the reading and/or other sources of information and requiring the students’ judgment, it would be a higher-level question. I propose that we direct higher-level questions, especially open-ended ones where a variety of responses can have some validity, to students we perceive as less able. After the student’s initial response, one might probe and delve in a manner that asked the student to compare his or her response with the public’s reaction to Watergate. It is obvious that one must be careful not to be too apparent in the differing levels of difficulty directed at students of differing abilities lest the students see through this strategy.


Latency. Latency, or “wait time” as it is also known is simply this: a more than “normal” pause between exchanges. The more common type of latency (type one) occurs when a teacher asks a question and chooses a respondent. While research varies regarding the exact length of time a teacher should use, we know that most teachers practice very little latency, typically less than or about one second. I advocate that a teacher should wait at least three seconds when asking a question, especially a higher level question. Initially, this is very difficult. As a prompt for latency, I identify a part of the physical landscape, a window or a clock if such is positioned in the back of the classroom. After I ask a question I look to this feature and focus my attention on it. While this is initially disconcerting to my students who expect me to be scanning their ranks, it is effective in reminding me to practice latency. It also serves to remind me to be equitable in my selection of respondents as well as lessening my attention to the obvious volunteers, students who have raised their hands or verbalized a response.


The second type of latency involves the pause in discussion after a student has responded. This is referred to as “type two” latency. If an instructor gets in the habit of letting a student’s comments hang in the air for two or three seconds, this sends a signal to all the students that this response is worth reflecting upon and evaluating. It has been my observation that, when type two latency is used, students are more attentive to their peers’ ideas because the focus is taken away from the instructor. Again, this seems slightly bizarre when one first begins to practice it, but it does create a more thoughtful and honoring classroom climate. It also helps me in formulating my response to student input.


Encouragement. The original program uses the term “praise” in lieu of my terminology, but I prefer “encouragement” because it connotes a support of student ideas and work, rather than a Pavlovian reward of same. We are more curt in our encouragement of student responses, according to some of the research. We are more prone to simply mumble “uh huh” when a student of perceived lesser ability responds in an acceptable fashion, but when one of “favorites” responds in a similar fashion we are more likely to be more emphatic, e.g. “You got it!” However, I believe that a still better practice is that of precise encouragement, the next practice to be delineated.


Precise Encouragement. Precise encouragement is effective because it suggests why or how the student response has merit. It also fits neatly within the practice of delving and probing. The instructor, if using precise encouragement, might respond in this fashion (after using a few seconds of type two latency of course), “I think you’ve got a real good point in distinguishing between arenas of behavior based on their “publicness.” However, can we explain the whole of this difference based only on this distinction?” If the student seemed perplexed, one might delve by saying, “Besides the issue of publicness, what other differing circumstances might factor in here?”


Proximity. It seems obvious that students that are located nearer the instructor will be more involved in the discussion and connected to the instructor than students more distantly located. I also use randomly assigned groups quite often, and this leads students to be grouped about the classroom in varying patterns. After group work, the groups report out on their discussion. Because their seating arrangements have been varied, this allows different students to be proximus to me on different days, even if I do get caught up in the center of the room. Also, I find it helpful to stand on the opposite side of the room from the group reporting out. This causes the group to speak to the whole room, not just me, and is more likely to encourage student to student discussion across groups. It has been my observation that I do tend to gravitate to front center of the room during sessions without group work; by catching myself at this, I move about more freely.


What exactly constitutes proximity? Proximity is operationally defined at being within three feet or arm’s length of a student. I prefer to extend this range to about five or six feet, and I imagine this distance to be the space that would allow the student and I to touch hands, were we to extend an arm to each other. This seems a more appropriate distance for the collegiate classroom where we spend less time working with our students on projects and writing assignments in-class and spend more time talking with our students about such projects, assignments, and ideas central to the course we are teaching.


Individual Help. If you asked most K-12 teachers, they would tell you that the large majority of the time they spend assisting students with seatwork and so on is devoted to their less able students. It has been my observation that there are obviously needy students who might capture their teacher’s attention, but if the student is not demonstrably needy, the teacher tends to direct his attention to either needy students or students the teacher perceives to be particularly engaged in the task at hand. While opportunities for individual helping probably exist to a lesser degree at the collegiate level (labs being an exception), there are still occasions when college instructors, especially those of a constructivist orientation, have students involved in individual or group projects while in class. If their tendency is the same as K-12 teachers, they are likely not be equitable in their attention without assistance. I also believe that the higher up students go in their educational careers, the less likely they are to actively demonstrate confusion and neediness of the instructor’s attention. Thus, learning to be equitable in individual helping is of great importance to collegiate instructors.


Attentive Listening. Attentive listening, to define it operationally, is the use of ones body to demonstrate that one is attending to a student’s comments, questions, or concerns. It is all too easy for an instructor, his head swimming with the flow of conversation and his instructional objectives, to devote less than his full attention to a student, even though the instructor wants nothing more than an interactive, conversational classroom climate. It is also human nature to tend to devote more of this sort of attention to students one perceives as being particularly able. As with the rest of the practices I have described, the goal of the effective and equitable instructor is to be consistent with active listening.


Courtesy and Personal Interest. Some of us are very prone to share personal comments and conversations with students while others of us take a more aloof stance. The key here, as earlier, is to be equitable in this regard: either spread such attention around to all the students in a class on an equally occasional basis, or refrain from it altogether. Obviously, these practices can be counter-productive during actual instructional time, but I find such relationship-building worthwhile if carried out in the minutes before or after the actual session. The key is to look for something to comment on with all students, or, if students initiate such conversations, not to spend too much time being chatted up by a minority of the class.


Jeff C. Palmer is a teacher, success coach, trainer, Certified Master of Web Copywriting and founder of Jeff is a prolific writer, Senior Research Associate and Infopreneur having written many eBooks, articles and special reports.