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Planning and Evaluating Methods

A sponge, a green stick of chalk and a pink stick of chalk in front of a blackboard.

A sponge, a green stick of chalk and a pink stick of chalk in front of a blackboard.
Image Credit: CC Jamina Diel BY-NC-SA

Teaching methods are applied in order to achieve specific goals, not for their own sake. Often, the details are essential. Methods are not recipes that can be standardized and applied universally to achieve the same results every time. It can be interesting to try out new methods and design classes that are varied and entertaining.
As you plan the lessons for your class, it is important that you carefully think through methods or your own ideas with possible variations and alternatives in mind. Carelessly implemented teaching methods can also have negative effects. Particularly if you want to account for or explicitly address gender- and diversity-related power relations such as racism, sexism, economic exploitation and inequality, migration, antisemitism, and other social relations, you must strike a tricky balance between clearly laying out circumstances and risking exposing people’s social positions or forcing them into the role of victim. To employ methods deliberately and competently, you need the right skills and a realistic understanding of your capabilities as a lecturer. Continuing training programs are listed under Resources.

To help you select methods more deliberately, here are some questions to ask as you review a method.

These guiding questions are based on Katharina Debus’s proposal for selecting and evaluating methods. We have modified them slightly and explained how they apply to higher education. You can find the original instructions for method planning and evaluation on the Portal Intersektionalität (Website in German).
  • What is the primary goal you want to achieve with the method? What processes are you aiming to set in motion?
  • Does the method you selected match this goal?
  • Might the method have other consequences that you would welcome or prefer to prevent?

If your primary goal is to reveal the range and complexity of a subject and to awaken students’ curiosity, you can break the process down into several, deliberately short activities rather than presenting everything at once. However, if your primary goal is for students who don’t know each other yet to cooperatively develop creative solutions to a problem, methods using short activities and strict timing are less suitable. It takes time to establish an atmosphere of good teamwork in which various ideas can be voiced, heard, and discussed.

  • Who will find it easy to participate in this method? Which students will be likely to feel directly addressed or supported by the method?
  • Who will find it harder? Which students might feel stifled or overlooked?
  • What are the prerequisites?
  • Does the method require particular concentration or quick-wittedness?
  • Is it more cognitive, textual or linguistic? Does it employ images? Or does it contain practical elements?
  • Does it require specific physical capabilities or fine-motor skills?
  • Is writing experience important?
  • Does it require comfort in specific types of language?
  • How time- and resource-intensive is the method?
  • Does it require (personal) technological devices or skills in using them?
  • Does it require specific social skills, such as the ability to speak in front of groups, self-confidence, or teamwork?
  • What subject-related or methodological prior knowledge is necessary to participate?
  • Does it create a competitive situation? What negative consequences might that generate?

As you answer these questions, be sensitive to students’ varying preparation levels and abilities. If you expect certain individuals or groups to participate in certain types of activities and expect others to find these activities more difficult, make sure to also think about what stereotypes might be influencing these assumptions.

Overall, a variety of methods tends to ensure that it is not always easy or difficult for the same students to participate. You should also consider what you can do to ensure that everyone is similarly prepared to participate by practicing necessary skills together beforehand or providing information in advance.

  • Do these methods reproduce preexisting forms of hierarchical marginalization?
  • Do they generate group dynamics that keep “coincidentally” producing the same distribution of roles?
  • Do they give rise to leadership positions, processing positions, and/or positions without any say at all? If so, who gets which position?

Group work has many advantages. Students get acquainted with each other. There is more time for each person to talk in discussions. Participants can learn from each other and test and expand their knowledge in a space under less observation. Long-established roles in the larger group can be mixed up.
At the same time, a small group creates a new distribution of roles: Who moderates the conversation? How are decisions made? Who takes notes? Who keeps track of time? Who presents the results? Are any students not included or even actively excluded? Different tasks often do not receive the same recognition. They also lead to differing labels of competence. This leads to the formation of a hierarchy.

There are a number of ways to handle these dynamics:

  • You can start by consciously considering potential group dynamics when you divide the groups.
  • Encourage your students to pay attention to the distribution of roles so that allgroup members have a chance to contribute their own solutions and ideas to the group.
  • You can also provide instructions for a group discussion in which the first part of the task involves each participant presenting ideas without them being commented on or evaluated, allowing for a discussion only after everyone has participated. Specify that multiple group members present the results and that the other members can add in ideas. You can also suggest that tasks such as taking notes, illustration, or time management should be taken in turns.
  • Give the team members opportunities to give feedback about their working situation and evaluate the responses with an eye to gender and diversity.
  • Does the method present a risk of reproducing social power relations and associated stereotypes or discrimination?
  • Does the method involve activities that wheelchair users cannot perform without assistance?
  • Does it involve expenses that can cause students to be excluded?
  • Do externally imposed labels create a division into specific groups based on categories such as national origin or male/female?
  • Do you use case studies or examples that represent women and men in purely stereotypical, hierarchical roles? An example of this is as the problem in probability theory often called the secretary problem.
  • Does the method present a risk of inflicting physical or psychological injury or offense?
  • Is there a risk of (re)traumatizing someone?
  • Are participants exposed?
  • Is there a risk of violating participants’ privacy?
  • Are personal details inadequately protected?

In the university environment, you need to be especially careful in your treatment of personal information and details –even when students’ safety and health is not endangered. Your job is not just to guide learning processes; you also are responsible for evaluating students and should therefore be conscientious about deciding what to cover and what you as the lecturer would be better off not knowing so that you remain fair and impartial.

...can you redesign or transform the method, paying attention to gender and diversity, in a way that changes the answers to no?

  • You can try to minimize certain risks or offer options or withdrawal from the group.
  • You can mark participation in the method as voluntary.
  • You can consider unintended effects in advance and try to prevent them or reduce them.
  • You can openly address problems that come up.
  • You can design the method in a way that protects individuals or does not expose them.
  • You can temporarily divide up the group in a gender- and diversity-conscious way.
  • If needed, you can solicit support or help with certain aspects.

...or refrain from using the method and select another, more suitable one.

Note: As a university lecturer, you are in the difficult position of both guiding a learning process by giving input, moderating the class, and perhaps also steering and discussing group processes from the standpoints of gender and diversity – and at the same time grading your students’ performance. This conflict of roles cannot be resolved. A clear position and discussion with other lecturers may help you untangle complicated situations and find possible courses of action. You have to strike a balance between experimentation and caution. Remember, once again: error-friendliness applies to lecturers too: there is no perfect method!

Debus, Katharina. 2012. Methodenplanung und -auswertung. In: Portal Intersektionalität.

Version April 2017. This content is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported Licence.