Who You Gonna Call? A Harvard Lecturer’s Quest for Equitable Class Participation

Dan Levy had long considered himself an equitable instructor in terms of calling on students to participate in class discussions. So in 2014, the senior lecturer in public policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government decided to test that assumption.

In spreadsheets, he manually recorded each interaction he had with students during discussion. The data disproved his belief: He’d only heard from female students around one-third of the time, even though they made up nearly half his class.

“It was a total shock to me—I thought I was calling on them fairly,” says Levy, 48. “It was a big, big moment for me.”

With help from students and Harvard staff, Levy created an app, Teachly, to help educators like himself to involve students more equitably in their classes. Students fill out a survey that asks for information about their background and demographics like gender and race. This data is then put into Teachly to create profiles of each student, which are then displayed in a digital seating chart.

When class is in session, the instructor or an assistant will record which students spoke during class using the app. Afterward, the tool produces a report showing which students participated, and whether there are any trends or disparities in terms of the backgrounds of students who were more engaged or called upon.

The app also offers instructors the ability to include information about students’ personal interests, which Levy says can inform educators about ways to make class discussions more engaging and relevant.

Today, Teachly has been used by over 75 faculty members in 100 classrooms at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Three instructors at the University of California in Irvine are also piloting the app, Levy says.

While Levy created the app to automate part of the process involved in documenting class participation, it still requires some manual assistance. For that, an instructor usually turns to teaching assistants like Erin Gregor, who record in Teachly every time a student participates.

Gregor, a course assistant at the Kennedy School, tells EdSurge that manually recording each interaction with Teachly wasn’t a burden, and that it motivated different students to participate more throughout the course.

“It’s easy to complain about a problem but not have the data to back it up,” says Gregor. “Even if participation is not a grade, it’s a huge value to get more people to contribute to the conversation.”

Differences in class participation between students of different gender has been the subject of research dating back decades, which have found that female students participate less in class discussions, especially in courses led by male instructors. The difference may be more pronounced in science classes. A 2014 study of 23 introductory biology courses found that women on average represent 60 percent of students, their voices were less than 40 percent of those heard responding to instructors’ questions to the class, “one of the most common ways of engaging students in large lectures.”

Ensuring equity in classroom participation is a problem that Mary Wright has tried to solve sometimes with pen and paper.

Wright, director of Brown University’s Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning and a sociology professor, says she’s previously drawn maps of classrooms by hand to show educators pockets where students are the least engaged. Instructors can have biases toward picking particular students.

She encourages instructors to wait a few seconds after asking a question to allow more hesitant students to raise their hands, and to establish at the beginning of the course expectations for how to participate and how often. “It’s important to be a good listener, a good writer, to be contemplative in the class,” she says. “Maybe we put too much emphasis on speaking.”

She hasn’t used Teachly. But based on a presentation she saw Levy deliver about the tool, she believes it can be a digital complement to activities educators do to make sure class discussions weren’t dominated by the usual, talkative students. “Student interaction enhances learning,” Wright says. “Any tools that can foster participation skills are a welcome addition.”

So far, Teachly has supported through grants by various Harvard programs. Those grants have helped scale Teachly so that instructors in Harvard’s graduate schools in public health and education can also pilot it. He wants faculty worldwide to try his tool and is figuring out the best way to distribute it, whether that’s through partnerships or sales.

“Often, faculty don’t have the tools to do something about” classroom participation equity, he says. “This will help faculty move toward a more inclusive classroom.”