Put your hands down

In seminars, I sit with other students, hands-raised, waiting to be called on by the professor — just like old times in elementary school. We all know the routine. When our hands are raised, we indicate to professors that we have formed a response, and we wait patiently to speak. While I agree that hand-raising is polite and all, is it good for class discussions?

No, not at all. Let’s be real. When you form a point and wait to speak, there’s no way your response can relate directly to the point said before you (because it hasn’t been said yet). So when you’re finally called on, you’ll probably say something irrelevant. Then, the next person will be called on and say something irrelevant again. Then, again. We don’t engage with each others’ points. That’s when our class discussions become exhausting forums for students to share totally random points that don’t relate to one another. It’s the worst. We’ve all been there before.

My recommendation? This whole hand-raising thing has got to go.

Unfortunately, not many professors facilitate class discussions without hand-raising. They usually run their classes with this way because:  a) hand-raising is customary and no one doubts the concept, b) they unsure how to mediate a conversation without hand-raising, c) professors want to give everyone a chance to speak and create a balanced conversation. Some are afraid that eliminating hand-raising would invite more outspoken students to dominate the conversation.

Not necessarily true.  As a relatively quiet student, I absolutely do not benefit from the hand-raising ritual. In class, I prefer to listen to everyone, and I occasionally pose a larger question to the group or tie loose ends of conversation together. Hand-raising does not help me jump in the conversation, but discourages me instead; I participate less if I am expected to raise my hand. This is because I choose not to participate when I know my response will be irrelevant. By the time I hold my hand up and earn permission to speak, I know my point is probably already irrelevant in the discussion.  I need a free-flowing, uninterrupted conversation to assure my points will keep the discussion productive.

Free-flowing conversations allow students to directly engage with each others’ ideas and exercise deeper forms of analysis. To improve class discussions, both students and professors need to be active agents in changing class dynamics.

Fortunately, some professors are making the shift. Recently a professor emailed me with this question: What are your thoughts about the raising hands issue?  I’ve never been able to get around that and I feel that it definitely inhibits conversation. How does it work in a regular discussion if more than one student wants to talk at a time?

Excellent question. Let’s discuss.

There are a few ways to create more effective class discussions without raising hands. Professors, simply ask students not to raise their hands in class. Boom. Direct, to the point.

Additionally, professors should stop commenting after every student’s response. When someone — in this case the instructor — remarks after every students’ response, students start directing their comments to the professor. That’s when you get this odd effect we’ve all seen: students speaking right to the instructor, as if no one else in the class exists. As soon as speaking to their professor becomes a trend in class, students begin to tailor comments to please the professor, rather than addressing the entire class. Professors, have students to look at one another – not at you – so they respond directly to the last comments made.

But if professors aren’t changing class dynamics, students shouldn’t hesitate take the lead. Students, you can always jump into the conversation yourself, refusing to raise your hand.

I know, it’s kind of a radical thing. It’s hard to act against the unspoken “class rules” and “codes of conduct” in a classroom. (Last week, I tried not raising my hand in my literature class, and it kind of failed. I created a brutally awkward moment in which I responded directly to another student, while cutting off another student who was called on after patiently waiting to speak. I came off as the rude, aggressive chick that interrupts people). Even though it can be challenging, push the boundaries of your class dynamics by not raising your hand; asking a question directly to other students; not looking at your professor when you speak. Talk to your professor in office hours about the progress of class discussions. Ask your professor if she’s willing to try having a class discussion where no students raise their hands.

We know Barnard seminar discussions can improve, but not many know exactly what to change. Let’s start with the basics. Let’s eliminate the one thing that we’ve been doing all our lives, in all our classes, since elementary school. Put down your hands and just speak.


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