Changing the Playing Field in a Diverse Classroom

By Kristi DePaul

The demographics of higher education in America are changing. Today’s ‘average student’ is 25 years old. They may be balancing family, work and school, or be a recent immigrant to the country. He or she could be serving in the military. When it comes to the rigors of a bachelor’s degree program, the characteristics of such students can bring both advantages and challenges.

The New Traditional College Student

As a longtime faculty member at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, Prof. Tim Baldwin has witnessed this demographic change firsthand.

“I’m very similar to our typical student profile of years past. So, for somebody like me, who has taught many courses over time in a very traditional university environment with a lot of 18-to-22-year-old native English-speaking students from the Midwest, our current classes represent a major shift.”

Baldwin acknowledges that these evolving demographics naturally require a different approach to teaching.

“I’ve seen the classroom change a lot in terms of age, ethnicity, gender—in order to connect with that audience it takes a little more effort and thoughtfulness.”

He admits that as an extrovert, he’s more than comfortable with disagreement, especially in the classroom setting. Baldwin seeks it, in fact, in order to expose differing viewpoints. He recognizes that this style won’t resonate with students who are on the other end of the spectrum, though.

“ForClass gives you that opportunity behind the scenes to realize just how informed some of your more introverted students are. That’s the single most valuable thing about ForClass: it’s a breakthrough in how it levels the playing field for students who are less assertive and less extroverted.”

…and as a faculty member, Baldwin notes that you can sometimes come away from a class falsely believing that the majority of students were engaged when this wasn’t at all the case.

“At the end of class, you may think ‘man, they were really informed and well-prepared:,  why didn’t they say anything?’ ForClass allows you to encourage participation from everyone on the basis of grade, rather than going on interaction that I’ve merely witnessed in my classes.”

There’s also the question of class size, and how effectively a professor can manage a smaller, more intimate class versus a larger lecture hall. Baldwin says that class size has become more manageable in terms of knowing who has participated, and encouraging the whole group to join a discussion.

“Ask any instructor: did you get a lot of student participation? And they will likely say, yes, it was a great class.  If you actually analyzed it, however, you’d see that of 45 students, 16 spoke, and maybe 4 with passion. So it felt like a  a spirited, lively class and  it seemed to go really well. From another perspective, 30 students didn’t have a word to say. Thirty! ForClass enables everyone to comment and share their perspective. As in, they all have to do it.”

Four Big Advantages to Using ForClass

In what ways is ForClass most helpful to Baldwin? There are a number of areas that appear to benefit students and faculty:

  • Student accountability. “For me, the single most important thing about adopting the platform. If we’re going to say nobody wants death by PPT or to be talked ‘at’ in a lecture format, what are the options? You’ve got case discussions and experiential exercises, but you need a way to translate those into active, informed, prepared students. ForClass enables that.”
  • Grading participation. “The other thing, which is very helpful, is grading—if you want to grade participation on any level, you can demonstrate how students performed over the course of a semester. There’s visibility into the range of student responses, including better answers that show critical thinking and others that are perhaps less informed or organized. Now, I’ve been given a window into some top-notch analysis that I can frame into an example, based on input from 25 very smart minds.”
  • Debate preparation. “ForClass sets up debates so beautifully. We used to use voting cards in class to create that kind of effect, but now, I know exactly where each student in the room stands on a given issue. So leadership questions like “Should we fire this person?” or “Should we expand into another region?” come with individual perspectives.” (Their answers are much more autonomous now, since they’re not influenced by others’ responses in class.)
  • Class customization. “What the platform does for me is a couple of things: it really gives me a starting point for class discussion. For example, if you happen to have a full agreement on an issue already, what a great time not to focus on that…but to instead pick out those areas where you have some contention. Those are wonderful teaching moments, where A would be better than B. As a faculty member, you’re customizing the class to THAT specific student cohort. I’ve actually done this; on the basis of using ForClass, I can honestly say that two sections can be materially different because of the prompts students give me to lead the class.”

“Customization is great to talk about, but hard to do; ForClass allows you to do it with very little additional effort. This isn’t just hype; this is a really neat tool. It allows for very easy customization, and every educator alive knows that’s the movement across the board in higher education.”

Baldwin explains that in a precious hour-and-a-half, he needs to highlight the areas where understanding, confusing and epiphany converge. Students are plunged into real-world problem solving, where they confront industry disruptions and quality assurances, and frame initiatives they’d lead to mitigate issues.

“Teaching in this context, with case studies, is very behavioral. It’s not so much who you are—your values and beliefs—It’s the decisions you make. What are you going to do first, second, third? Who are your potential champions? Sources of resistance? Wrestling with those in advance gives us a variety of different takes and spirited discussions.”

Prof. Tim Baldwin is Chairperson of the Management and Entrepreneurship Department at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, and is the Randall L. Tobias Chair in Leadership.