February 15th, 2011

10 Benefits of Getting Students to Participate in Classroom Discussions


hands raised

Participation is one of those workhorse instructional strategies—easy to use, straightforward, expected, and often quite successful at accomplishing a number of learning goals. It’s good to remind ourselves of its many different uses, especially on those days when getting students to participate feels like pulling hens’ teeth.

  1. Participation adds interest—It’s hard to maintain students’ focus and attention when all they hear is the professor talking. It helps to hear another voice as well as an answer or another point of view.
  2. Participation engages students—A good question can pique their interest, make them wonder why, get them to think, and motivate them to make connections with the content. This benefit is magnified when teachers play a bit with the question, when they repeat it, write it on the board, and don’t call on the first hand they see.
  3. Participation provides the teacher feedback—When students answer or try to explain, teachers can see the extent of their understanding. They can correct (or help the students correct) what the students haven’t got right or don’t see quite clearly.
  4. Participation provides the students feedback—When teachers ask questions or otherwise seek student input over a topic, they are letting students know something about the importance of certain ideas and information.
  5. Participation can be used to promote preparation—If an instructor regularly calls on students and asks questions about assigned reading or what’s in their notes from the previous class session, that can get students (at least some of them) coming to class prepared.
  6. Participation can be used to control what’s happening in class—If a student is dozing off, texting, quietly chatting, or otherwise not attending to what’s happening, that student can be called on or the student next to the offender can be asked to respond.
  7. Participation can be used to balance who’s contributing in class and how much—In the vast majority of cases, it is the teacher who selects the participant. If teachers will wait patiently and not always select the same student, if they look expectantly to others and confirm verbally and nonverbally the value of hearing from different people, they can influence who speaks and how much. Participation even helps teachers control how much they talk.
  8. Participation encourages dialogue among and between students—Students can be asked to comment on what another student has said. A question can be asked and students can be invited to discuss possible answers with each other before the public discussion.
  9. Participation can be used to develop important speaking skills—In many professional contexts, people need to be able to speak up in a group. They may need to offer information, ask questions, or argue for a different solution. People don’t learn to speak up in a group by reading about how to do it—it’s one of those skills best developed with practice. And it’s one of those skills that develops better with feedback. If participation is being used to teach students this public communication skill, they will need feedback.
  10. Participation gives students the opportunity to practice using the language of the discipline—Most faculty have spoken astronomy, accounting, psychology, gerontology, political science, whatever the field for years, and they’ve forgotten how much of the language is new, different, and difficult for students. Participation gives students the chance to practice using a different vocabulary.

Supporting Learning Outcomes - Free Report

I was talking with a colleague about these uses for participation, and he pointed out that we don’t often use participation to ask students the questions we are trying to answer. I wonder if students might be more interested in participation if we did.

From “Uses for Participation.” The Teaching Professor, 23.9 (2009): 4.

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  • Constance Chapman

    Participation is, indeed, the technique to use in the college classroom. Too many professors spend the entire class period listening to themselves talk (I think they would rather that the students listened to them). I have had the most enjoyable sessions in my Literature and Composition classes when I encouraged students to participate. A way to get them to do so is to be aware of their body language, something that elementary school teachers do all the time. Does a student frown? Perhaps it is because he or she does not understand what you are saying. That is a clue to explain in another way. Or, when I see a student with his or her head on the desk, I usually go over and ask "Aren't you feeling well?" Often they are not and I allow them to leave the class. I always tell students that wrong answers are a teacher's friend because then he or she realizes that the student does not understand the concept and it needs to be explained in a different way. Also use the Socratic method. Ask questions that lead students to discover the answers. There is nothing so frustrating than teachers who know their topic so well that they "speak in tongues." I remember taking a computer class where I did not understand how to boot the machine until mid-term. That was because the teacher said, pointing to the screen, "Raise you hand if your computer does not look like this." Some of us would raise our hands and he would rush over, click a few keys and "like magic" our screens looked like his. What had he done? I, for one, had no idea! If he had introduced the steps carefully, everyone would have been successful. So, teachers must remember. Let the students speak. Both you and they will discover what they should know and how much pleasure that discovery will produce.

    Dr. Constance Chapman

  • Carrie Neville

    Participation is a key ingredient in the learning process. I like this article because it reminded me of some of the ways to get a student engaged. I have also found that when doing an activity or lab, the students always participate more when they have seen a clear demonstration and also have seen the final outcome.

  • tammy Ladd

    #5 pertains to something I do with my students. I give them a "payday quiz"; sort of a pop quiz from the prior day's lecture. It keeps them on their toes and I can keep track of those who are actually paying attention in class 🙂

  • adisu kelifa

    can you please help me your research 'that the student language classroom participation' full research or questioner and observation checklist

  • radebe

    need to know the importance of asking questions at the beginning, during, and at the end of the lesson

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