To unmute or not to unmute

Zara-Grace Hussey looks at how online teaching has affected class participation

Learning has looked entirely different for all of us this year. The switch from lecture theatres to recordings and tutorials to breakout rooms has significantly shifted the ways that we can interact with our lecturers, teaching assistants, and fellow students. In theory, a move to online provides scope for new methods of teaching and engaging with classes. In practice, has online teaching impacted the way we participate in classes – and does it vary by gender?

Figures available from 2019 show that women students form the majority at Trinity, with 60% of registered students being women and 40% being men. Dr Yekaterina Chzhen, Assistant Professor of Sociology in Trinity, says that in her classes, female students form the majority. However, even though women dominate the classroom in attendance, they do not always dominate in participation. 

“… it will often happen that male students are more likely to speak up.” 

This imbalance in participation becomes apparent when the gender gap is defined in relative terms. “For example, if I have a tutorial of 20 people, of whom 15 are female and five are male, I’d have three male students (three of five) and three female students (three of fifteen) speak up,” explains Dr.Yekaterina. “So, if there is no time for every student to take part in the whole group discussion because there are other activities in the tutorial (e.g. student presentations, break-out groups, quizzes), it will often happen that male students are more likely to speak up, as a proportion of their smaller group.” 

Some lecturers have reported that even though they are not speaking face-to-face, they feel as though they know their classes better than in previous years of teaching their courses. In a previous interview with Trinity News, Dr Jacqueline Hayden said that although her classes were online, she wanted to ensure that her students “knew I was a human being, I wasn’t alien to them”.

Students have also reported a better understanding of the course material and greater interest in the topics. These are some of the benefits created by any increase in class participation, and research suggests that the knock-on effect of greater participation goes beyond gaining higher grades in college. In a 2002 study by Harvard Business Review, a subtler source of inequality was discovered: “Women often don’t get what they want and deserve because they don’t ask for it.” The HBR study revealed that initiatives taken to negotiate for oneself are a key factor to the success of one’s career, a skill which women avoid from using. 

As Sheryl Sandberg once wrote, “While compliance and raising your hand when called-on behaviours might be rewarded in school, they are less valued in the workplace”. This active participation and voluntary discussion within students’ academics could translate better into a successful career.

While students and staff alike are all looking forward to the day when they can sit within two metres of each other in a lecture hall of 400 students, the findings of the past year suggest that when this day comes, a change in the college teaching environment must be created to accommodate the maintenance of these high levels of participation.

Many students and staff alike feel that having now experienced the benefits of greater participation, it will be hard to return to in-person lecturers with the standard lecturing for an hour straight. Speaking to Trinity News, a business lecturer admitted that in the past, “the extent of our in-person lecture interactions with the students was the odd poll”. The degree to which this system will remain post-pandemic life is unclear, however. 

“In my experience, those individuals who enjoy participating, asking questions and discussing, tend to be female.”

Although the increase in participation has occurred across all faculties in Trinity, in order to strive for this high level of participation in business, one must shine a light on women. It’s very encouraging to see that in an industry where women are working hard to be equally represented, the women of Trinity business undergraduate courses are flourishing and breaking out of industry norms. Speaking to several second-year business students, one male student explained that in moving to online classes he wished that he had the “confidence that they (his female peers) have in participating in class”. “In my experience, those individuals who enjoy participating, asking questions and discussing tend to be female,” he said. Most students agreed that in their experience of in-person lectures and tutorials last year, a gender gap in participation was unnoticed.

“I think participation as a whole has been encouraged more online.”

In an online environment where discussion in class seems to be a lot easier, women are finding comfort in this and are participating more than they did in in-person classes. As one student put it, “lecturers having to teach online are trying to facilitate discussion a lot more than maybe they had seen in in-person”. Another agreed, saying, “I think participation as a whole has been encouraged more online”.

Research has found that in third-level education in which class participation rates are high, students have an easier transition into the world of work and achieve leadership roles quicker than those who aren’t used to practising this high level of participation and discussion, which is normally found in the collaborative business environment.

Gender certainly seems to have a role to play in class participation, but the extent to which this will change and fluctuate as a result of in-person versus online teaching is still inconclusive. According to a 1995 study on Understanding Classroom Interaction: “Males are more likely to offer comments or raise questions in their classes. Females respond to the emotional climate of a class more than do males, and most importantly, females’ participation is related to their confidence. In contrast, faculty gender has no significant impact on class participation.” It’s a conclusion that perhaps plays into some gender stereotypes – the idea that women are more emotional than men, for instance – but acknowledging the way that gender – along with other social factors – impact students’ experience of education remains important more than twenty years later.

As vaccination rollout continues and Trinity looks to return to in-person teaching, many students and lecturers are looking forward to the changes in class participation that may come from this past year.