Socioeconomic status and class participation: Observational design practice

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I had a colleague who was a reading teacher. She told me the greatest teaching challenge she had was in finding articles for her students to read that her students found relevant and compelling. I feel the same way about teaching research methods, including the research methods chapter in Intro Psych. There are a lot of studies that will illustrate psychology’s different research methods, but finding studies that students will find relevant and compelling can be a challenge. If we pick the right studies, however, we can get a two-fer: students learn about research methods and they learn about the study’s content.

In the In Brief section of the November/December 2023 Monitor on Psychology was a blurb on an observational study that might grab the attention of students—particularly our students from working class backgrounds.

In this freely available article, researchers wondered if pre-school students from different socio-economic backgrounds would show different degrees of participation during all-class discussions (Goudeau et al., 2023). In the article’s introduction, the authors cite two reasons as to why students from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds might participate less. The first is a cultural mismatch between a low SES student’s homelife and school, a mismatch that does not exist for middle- and high- SES students. For example, working class parents are less likely to encourage their children to publicly express opinions. Cultural psychologist Alana Conner grew up in a working-class family in Memphis. When she went to Yale for college, her grandmother gave her a poster with this adage, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.”* Conner experienced culture shock her first semester as the (middle- and high-SES) students in her classes seemed to have no issues with sharing their thoughts and opinions. When I heard Conner speak about this at a conference, I had an “Aha!” moment. I, too, grew up in a working-class family, and I said very little in my classes—kindergarten through grad school. In my family, we didn’t talk about ideas.

Another possible contributor to this cultural mismatch is the activities families from different SES backgrounds tend to engage in. Middle- and high- SES families are more likely to read books and go to museums than low-SES families. “As a result, these students have more ‘cultural capital’ to contribute during whole-class discussions relative to low-SES peers with similar language proficiency. Teachers may also perceive middle- and high-SES students as having more ‘relevant’ or ‘appropriate’ things to contribute to discussions, so they may provide these students with more opportunities to speak relative to low-SES students with similar language proficiency” (Goudeau et al., 2023, p. 3).

In addition to cultural mismatch, stereotype threat may also contribute to decreased class discussion participation from low-SES students. The low-SES stereotype says that low-SES students are not as academically competent as middle- and high-SES students. Out of fear of confirming the stereotype, low-SES students may choose to remain silent (Goudeau et al., 2023). Unfortunately, this silence may actually contribute to the stereotype.

Researchers wondered if a difference in class participation by SES status could be observed as early as preschool. If time allows, ask your students how we could approach designing a study like this. Where would we find our participants? Whose permission would we need to observe classes? How would we observe them? How many times would we observe them? How would we operationalize participation?

The researchers identified preschool classes that had the highest SES diversity as determined by parental occupation. They asked the teachers for permission to video record their classes. For the teachers that said yes, the researchers then asked the caregivers of the teachers for permission for their child to participate. Three to five days of recording were done for the classes for four preschool teachers. Four video cameras were used to record each class. The students were told that their class was being recorded. The researchers wrote, “We coded each preschooler’s contributions to whole-class discussions along two dimensions: frequency and duration… [and] we coded for five different types of contributions: (a) speaking after being called on by the teacher; (b) speaking after being called on again for follow-up; (c) speaking without being called on by the teacher; (d) speaking by interrupting another child; and (e) speaking by interrupting the teacher” (Goudeau et al., 2023, p. 6). Two coders watched the recording and coded the behaviors. Coders discussed all disagreements to reach consensus.

The researchers found that low-SES students were much less likely to speak during all-class discussions, and when they did, they spoke for less time than did their middle- and high-SES peers. Low-SES students were also much less likely to interrupt the teacher or their peers, and if they did, they spoke for less time as compared to the middle- and high-SES students (Goudeau et al., 2023).

Lastly, does participation matter? In a follow-up study, researchers found that the preschoolers believe that students who participate more in class discussions are more intelligent, better liked, and nicer (Goudeau et al., 2023).  

If time allows or as a follow-up assignment, ask your students to design a study that assessed class participation by SES and peer perceptions of those who participated more that could be conducted in a college class. How might participation be operationally defined in a face-to-face class, in an asynchronous online class, or in a class conducted in Zoom or Microsoft Teams?

As a bonus research project, assess whether discussing this research in your class increases whole-class discussion participation from your low-SES students. Learning about such research may have encouraged me to up my class participation. In college, I remember hearing about a study that found that when driving a vehicle men tended to look farther into the distance than did women. That ticked me off, so when driving, I started looking farther into the distance. I, of course, had no idea how my distance-viewing compared to other women or men. I might have already been looking farther ahead than anybody else. Didn’t matter. I was going to show them. Not that anyone was actually evaluating how far into the distance I looked when driving. Does learning about this study result in real changes for your low-SES students? It’s an empirical question.  


*It is unknown who first spoke these exact words, but the sentiment can be found in Proverbs 17:28 (O’Toole, 2010).



Goudeau, S., Sanrey, C., Autin, F., Stephens, N. M., Markus, H. R., Croizet, J.-C., & Cimpian, A. (2023). Unequal opportunities from the start: Socioeconomic disparities in classroom participation in preschool. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 152(11), 3135–3152.

O’Toole, G. (2010, May 17). Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt. Quote Investigator.


About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology since 1992. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award. She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed. and is co-author with Charles Stangor on Introduction to Psychology, 4.0.