July 21st, 2009

A Review of Participation Research


I’m preparing some materials related to participation. It’s given me cause to reread some of the research on participation in the college classroom. Although not particularly uplifting, I thought you too, might benefit from a brief review of some of the findings.

  • In one study where participation was observed in 20 social science and humanity courses, where observers noted how often 16 targeted behaviors occurred, only 5.86 percent of total class time was devoted to student participation. That’s one minute for every 40 minutes of class time. (Nunn, 1996)
  • Half the students surveyed said they participated infrequently or never in the classes. (Nunn, 1996)
  • In another observational study, only 44 percent of the students participated and 28 percent of those who did participate accounted for 89 percent of all the comments made by students. (Howard, Short, and Clark, 1996)
  • Why don’t students participate? One study found the main reason is a lack of confidence. Students feared looking unintelligent in front of the professor and in front of their peers. (Fassinger, 1995)
  • When asked to list the reasons they chose not to participate in a course, almost 50 percent of the students in another study said they didn’t speak because they didn’t know enough about the subject. (Howard, Short, and Clark, 1996)
  • Seventy-one percent of profs in one study thought that students chose not to participate when they hadn’t done the reading. Only 36.5 percent of students indicated that they wouldn’t participate for this reason. (Howard, Short, and Clark, 1996)

This particular set of findings is from studies conducted in the mid-90s. You think things may be different now? We’d need new research to confirm that. Rather than debate the current status of participation in college classroom, the real power of findings like these is that they challenge us to critically assess how interaction occurs in our individual classrooms today.


Fassinger, P. A. “Understanding Classroom Interaction: Students’ and Professors’ Contributions to Students’ Silence. Journal of Higher Education, 1995, 66 (1), 82-96.

Howard, J. R., Short, L. B., and Clark, S. M. “Students’ Participation in the Mixed Age Classroom.” Teaching Sociology, 1996, 24 (1), 8-24.

Nunn, C. E. “Discussion in the College Classroom: Triangulating Observational and Survey Results.” Journal of Higher Education, 1996, 67 (3), 243-66.