September 18th, 2013

Encouraging Student Participation: Why It Pays to Sweat the Small Stuff


Professor smiling, students hands raised

A recent classroom observation reminded me that student participation can be encouraged and supported by attention to small but important details. In this article I have highlighted these details in the form of questions, and I hope that you’ll use them to reflect on the behaviors you’re using when seeking, listening, and responding to student contributions.

How often do you ask a question and when do you ask it? How often does depend on the teacher but there’s evidence from more than one study that a lot of us over estimate how often we ask questions. How often should you seek student contributions? More than you do? Do you ask after you’ve covered a chunk of content and are thinking about how much you still have to get through? Do you ask at the end of the period when a lot of students are hoping nobody says anything so they can get out a couple of minutes early?

How long do you wait? How much time passes after you’ve solicited input before you move on or offer some verbal follow up? There’s research here too, and the findings are pretty consistent. Most faculty wait somewhere between two and three seconds before they do something else—ask the question again, call on somebody, rephrase the question, answer the question themselves, or decide nobody has anything to say and move on. When asked, most faculty claim that they wait 10 to 12 seconds. Time passes slowly when you’ve asked a question and there’s no sign of a response—it’s an awkward, uncomfortable time for the teacher and the students. But waiting longer has its rewards.

Do you encourage reflection before response? Student input improves if they have the opportunity to pull together their thoughts. Do you give them a minute to jot down some ideas, to talk with the person sitting next to them, to look something up in the text, or to just think about the question and how they might respond?

Do you move? How often do you get out from behind the podium? Do you routinely move across the space in the front of the room to where the student space begins? Do you cross the threshold into that student space?

Are you inviting engagement? As you move, are you establishing direct eye contact with students? If you’re smiling and looking relaxed, that kind of eye contact is not threatening. A lot of students won’t look at you, but some will and you can encourage them to speak with your eyes and face.

How intently do you listen? What are you doing while a student speaks? Are you looking at the student? Nodding or verbally indicating that you understand? Are you thinking about what the student is saying, or are you planning what you will say after the student is done speaking? It’s hard enough getting some students to talk in class, so let’s give them our full attention when they do. Don’t try to multi-task—listening but sneaking a peek at the clock; listening but looking down at your notes. Attentive listening can be confirmed by what you say after the student has finished. “Thank you. Let me see if I understand your response.” Follow that with a rephrase of what the student said, not what you hoped the student would say, but what the student actually said.

How are you showing that you value student contributions? Do you refer to the content of a good answer later in the class period, during a subsequent class, or in online exchanges? “Remember Paul’s point about such and such. It’s relevant here. Do you see the connection?” Do you point out why an answer is good? “Susan has just added something important to our discussion. Here’s why it’s important and why you probably ought to have in your notes.” Do you value comments by writing them on the board or displaying them with the projector? Do you ever mention something you learned from a student contribution? “A couple of years ago a student in this course gave one of the best examples of this that I’ve ever heard. Here’s what he said …”

How often do you solicit feedback from students about interaction in your classroom? Have you asked for feedback on your responses to their contributions? What do they see as the role of interaction in your classroom? What have they learned from what other students have said?

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  • Kevin A

    Dr. Weimer, you bring a large amount of insight to this topic of sweating the small stuff. Most of your questions caused me to reflect on my classroom etiquette. I was able to answer yes to most of your questions. I focused on how I respond to the student when they ask questions. For the most part, I am attentive and use eye contact and body language, which keeps the student engaged. I also write their answers on the board, which influences feedback from other students, along with affirmation. But, what do I do with the student who seems to be asking questions that seem to have to relevancy to the subject topic? Or a student that seems to enjoy themselves to hear themselves talk? This seems to be my challenge as I try to remember to the small stuff. Can you provide any advice? Thanks

    • Joseph R

      Hi Kevin, it sounds like you are experienced in the classroom with student engagement. How would you recommend getting students who tend to be less engaged to participate more in the classroom? That is, if the same students answer your questions each time you present them to the class, what techniques do you use to encourage the talkative students to let others answer, and what techniques do you use to encourage the quiet students to participate?

      • Kevin Aiken

        Hello, Joseph, I really enjoy teaching, or at least, I enjoy trying to teach. I have fun presenting the material with passion; so many students have commented that my classes are not boring but engaging. I encourage a lot of inner action between the students. I do this through different means such as: discussion groups with a minimum of two, student presentations, where the students gets a chance to teach the class, present a list of questions that are posed to the class for class discussion, etc. I am very demonstrative when I present my material. I guess because I have been nurtured that way. As a result of it, the quite students usually are no longer quiet by the end of the semester. I usually have a learning party in the classroom each time I teach! I just don’t have the strobe lights.

    • Bob G.

      Dr. Wiemer mentions feedback about the interactions in the class. Would the feedback of other students serve to limit some of the irrelevant comments and questions of some? With some direction, might the ones "who enjoy hearing themselves talk" serve by leading brief discussions?

      • Kevin A

        Hello Bob, I do think that the feedback of other students will help in some ways. But it is not that there is a lack of discussion in class from other students, its just that discussions that are engaging seems to prompt those who want to have a platform. Now, it may not be as bad for the students, but it can throw the teaching lesson schedule off. I do think that allowing those who like themselves talk lead a brief discussion, I'm just not sure if that will enhance the situation or help the situation. But, thank you for the suggestion.

  • Kathy Buschan

    Dr, Weimer, thank you for all of the tips on engaging participation. I thought I waited long enough for a response, but realize I don't. I also love the idea of focusing on the environment I create as the professor (my own body language). One thing I changed this semester was to lower my participation points from 10 down to 5 points on my syllabus. I feel if I work on creating an inviting environment, they will increase their participation. I have moved around the room more often, I've even had students write down their thoughts in their notes before sharing. I will begin to write down their responses on the board, this will allow more time for them to think as well. Yet, like Kevin, I still struggle with those few students that dominate discussions. They are always eager to answer my questions and they also ask great questions. Yet, somehow I still only have about 1/3 of the class actively participating in discussions. (Unless I'm doing a whole class activity where everyone has to participate).

  • Dr. Sheftall

    Setting up Learning Clubs seems to keep students involved. Each Learning Club is given a focus question (open ended) , which they discuss in their groups and share comments with the whole class. Another process that works is "jigsaw". This process places responsibility for responding on each participant.

  • Jeff Knott

    Very constructive and positive content-thankyou-even to refresh what you believe is effective may not be completely!.

  • jms

    Thank you for your thoughtful observations. Please share some of the sources your relied upon in your article so that we might be able to make a more persuasive case to our institutions that time ought to be allotted for developing these skills among our faculty and students.

  • Joe Harder

    Thanks for this article and all your comments. I teach at a case method business school where participation is generally 40% or more of the final grade so there's a tendency for students to want to get involved, unlike the situation many of you may face.

    One thing we have employed is peer feedback. Early in the Leading Organizations course we set up triads to track each others contributions across all courses (they take a common core as a cohort) with one class session devoted to feedback exchange (essentially what should you keep doing, start doing, stop doing). This is a great source of non-instructor feedback and can dampen the over-participators and encourage the more quiet ones.

    We also provide midterm participation feedback by sending mass emails (with blind carbon copy only 😉 to three groups – highly participative, strongly participative, and less participative. This lets the top ones know that while we value their contributions so far we may be looking for other hands in the air as we proceed. And it's an encouragement for the lower participators to get in more or at least come talk to us about their struggles.

    Thanks again!
    ~ Joe

  • Mark MD

    Dr. Weimer,
    You note that most teachers overestimate their performance in soliciting student contributions in the classroom. Perhaps we have all been guilty of that. Once, while watching a video of myself teaching, I was able to see some of these 'presentation details' in action. I never would have noted them without the evidence. Seeing the need really cements the desire to change. How might schools use video self-reviews to facilitate better interaction with students? And, any other ideas how administrators might promote a healthy interaction to motivate teachers to improve?

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  • Jonny Yoder

    This was a great article, thanks for the thoughts! I enjoyed the thoughts about inviting engagement in the classroom and I look forward to trying these thoughts out!

  • prof. dr. r q klhan

    very nice article. i practice each and everything noted down here. thanx for quantizing

  • KIm Parker Nyman

    This was a very helpful article. I do many of these things, but I am intrigued by the idea of allowing consultation and/or reflection before beginning a discussion. I think this would help make my in-class discussions with first-year students much more productive – so thank you!

    • David Arentsen

      Kim, I teach a lot of intro classes. Something I often do is hand out sheets of paper in the beginning of class. Lined loose leaf paper. For some questions, important questions, I ask students to write down and answer and give them 30-60 seconds. It gives them time to consider, then formulate their answer. If I call on someone I ask them to read what they wrote. I collect them at the end of each class (no names required) to get a feel for what answers they gave as a group.

      Also with walking around, when I know a question is coming I will walk far from my podium (or whatever), ask the question, then use the waiting time to (slowly) walk back. It gives me something to do rather than just staring at the class waiting.

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