September 21st, 2011

Practical Ideas for Improving Student Participation


At a recent workshop at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, I asked participants to identify the one thing about participation they would most like to change in their classrooms. From a variety of items mentioned, we decided to focus on three. They are listed below along with a range of solutions suggested by the group. Some of the solutions apply to more than one of the problems.

I’d like to change: The really bright, articulate, self-confident students who participate a lot and intimidate others in the class. This is a version of the over participation problem that research has verified is an issue in many classrooms.

  • Use some version of the think-pair-share strategy that gets students talking with each other before anyone answers and then ask students to report, not what they think, but what their partner said.
  • Use the three-hand rule and don’t call on anyone until there are three hands raised.
  • Recognize that the norms that establish who speaks in a course are set early in the course and that the teacher plays an important role in setting these norms. Politely refuse to call on students who have already spoken two or three times. “Thank you, but we need to hear from others.” Walk to a different part of the room and speak directly to those students. “I haven’t heard from any of you folks. Please share your thoughts.”
  • Wait. Research is very clear: Teachers frequently over estimate how long they wait after asking a question before doing something else. Let there be silence. Students who are not as articulate or self-confident often need more time to frame an answer.

I’d like to change: The number of students who just agree with what someone else posted in an online discussion. This is part of the larger problem that relates to the overall quality of classroom participation.

  • Recognize that students are often afraid to disagree with each other. Address those fears with guidelines and examples illustrating constructive ways to disagree.
  • Recognize that some students agree because it’s the easy thing to do, especially if they haven’t really engaged with the text. Use strategies, possibly even assignments, that get them prepared to participate in a discussion.
  • Disagree, not necessarily with students, but with the theories and ideas of others in the field. Do so respectfully and constructively thereby modeling how and why disagreement is valuable.
  • If some disagreeing comments are posted, call attention to them, pointing out what they contribute to the discussion.

I’d like to change: The way students often fail to listen and respond to each other. Here the problem is that generally the teacher-student exchange is perpendicular. The teacher asks a question and the student answers, or the student asks a question and the teacher answers and that’s it before moving on to another exchange.

  • Solicit a student response and then ask another student to respond to what the first student said.
  • Ask more open ended questions so that a variety of different answers are possible.
  • Really, really listen to what students say. Ask an important, interesting question and then record (on the board or electronically) a variety of student responses before commenting on any of them. Summarizing what a student says cannot be done accurately without listening closely.
  • Use student answers, comments or ideas subsequently. “Remember when Tom suggested that such and such might explain that behavior?”
  • Show that you value student comments. If you use an example contributed by a student, let the other students know where the example came from.

Participation is a widely used instructional strategy, but various research studies — many of which I’ve highlighted here in the blog and in the newsletter — have shown that it’s often not used in ways that realize its full potential. We use it so often, we fall into patterns and do not observe or analyze what we are doing and why.

But the good news is, solutions like those suggested here do not take a lot of upfront planning. They’re easy to implement and will make a big difference in the quality of your class discussions.

Now it’s your turn. What’s the one thing you’d like to change about student participation? Or, if you have effective classroom discussion strategy to share, please do so in the comment box.

  • Terri Geerinck

    I agree wholeheartedly with the last issue! I think that many students (and many faculty as well) have not been trained to listen (we hear but don't always listen) and then to give constructive feedback to each other. One tactic I use, is that students need to summarize what another student has said and then add their comments to the ongoing discussion. It may be something as simple as "I like what John said about the power of humanism in building self-esteem. However, I think there is …… " I try to stand back and positively reinforce all comments, even if they are somewhat off-topic or off-track. By positively commenting first and then adding to the discussion, the environment becomes safer and more students participate.

  • I liked the strategies suggested by your group. I am a professor and faculty trainer from India. One challenge we face is that students are either shy or afraid to respond to questions. I have two ways of handling this, which have worked.
    1. Usually the sit in threes on a desk, so I ask them to all discuss and write down the answer. Its far more easier to read out a written response and that too a collective one, instead of talking alone.
    2. I ask them to give me their questions on a small chit (muddiest point, something they want to know etc). This works wonderfully well. In one of the classes, when I asked them what they were expecting from my sessions, I hardly got 3 or 4 answers. Then when I left the session, I asked them to give me on a chit. All 50 of them had something or the other to say. I discussed these expectations in the next session.

  • Anne Edwards

    Student participation is vital because, otherwide, they are often not thinking with the material.__With all the technology, many(most) have no idea what a scientific or a graphing calculator will do.__The statistics course I instruct requires a major statistical projedt. This term we are using one set of data from the data bank and doing an entire project together for part of the work they will turn in with their own project. __The project has 15 parts and already they can see (1/4 of the way into the course) that they can do these things.__Watchning someone else do them does not work. With all the technology, it is sad that many have not learned that thinking and doing homework help to cement ideas for further use.

  • Saadiqa Khan

    Student participation is key for me since I have really big classes. Very often I organize the class into groups and I give them questions to answer which is based on sections from the text. Then they have to teach the other groups using their question. That way they have to read and engage with the material (which they don't normally do) and they have to make sure they understand it before they teach it to the others. It also gets them talking with each other. I teach mostly adults, so once I get them warmed up, they are okay for the rest of the class.

  • Dr. Gary L. Callahan

    I would like to change the students who fail to participate for fear of making an incorrect response. I want them to understand that mistakes are part of learning and that no response is a great issue than an incorrect response.

  • Mary Ann Scholl

    It is great to read all of the comments posted here. Classroom participation is necessary to be an effective instructor. Dr. Callahan cited a very accurate response for participation failure specifically in the brick and mortar classroom. Students are afraid or intimated in stating an incorrect response. I am an online instructor in a virtual classroom. In order for my classroom to work I ask questions of my student's postings and I welcome the other students to comment in on the discussion. This appears to work well in my online classroom.

  • Ann

    I am in agreement with the strategies proposed so far. My students are adult learners and I engage the strategies suggested. Because they are working people, I have the added benefit of saying to a student who has simply agreed with a previous comment, of saying something to the effect that :"Jane you have agreed with John on that point, could you explain to us how it has worked in your organisation, given that you are in different line of business" this never fails to force them to look at the theory and its applicability to their situation. It also helps others who were reluctant to comment, or who were simply lurking, to come out and relate the theory to their situation. What I would like to change: Students who uplift material from the web and paste into the online discussion.

    • Terri Geerinck

      What a great strategy! I will have to remember this one!

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  • Patti

    It is mportant for the student to interact with their peers as well as with the instructor. Having the student work in groups to first discuss the question and agree with one answer encpurages that to happen. This is especially effective in new classes where many of the students do not know each other, I gives all the students a start to working with each other in learning and studying.

  • NeuroJoe

    In my larger lecture courses, Ubiquitous Presenter software ( works very well to increase participation from all students. It's a "clicker-like" system, but allows for more detailed alphanumerical answers to open ended questions that I pose in class. The students can use laptops, smart phones, tablets, even old school cell phones to text in an answer, or even take a picture of something they draw, and their information shows up on my Tablet PC screen at the front of the class so we can discuss selected answers more in depth. I love it, and it's free for the students!

  • Becky Ventura

    I enjoyed reading the comments and strategies that educators are currently using to encourage student participation. I have found that creating a classroom that promotes idea sharing and real world experiences among students can be achieved in a relaxed and non-threatening environment. This takes time and requires an approachable presence. This method is learned and practiced but extremely effective in helping students to feel comfortable in answering questions, even if they are incorrect. I admit this technique is not for everyone and requires a certain amount of control of the classroom, as well confidence but it has worked well for me and I wanted to share….

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  • Guest

    I would like to hear more about how discussions are used in basic math and accounting classes. In more advanced courses, there would seem to be more to discuss. Sometimes it feels like trying to teach someone to play the piano or increase keying speeds by talking about them instead of practicing when the time for practice is very limited when it comes to basic math and accounting.

    There are definitely some good topics to discuss and discussions should not be eliminated, but should the same value and time be placed on discussions in basic math and basic accounting courses as one would in social science courses or in a more advanced math or accounting courses?

  • Mary Mullins

    In smaller classes, especially ones in which peer feedback and group work are central, I talk with students about the practice of reflective listening. I have them practice in pairs, often with a "hot" topic. Students take turns as speaker and listener. The speaker explains his or her position on the topic. The listener responds by checking to make sure he or she has understood accurately and fairly using language like: You seem to be saying __________. Is that right? If I understand you correctly, you mean _________. Am I on target? The speaker corrects misunderstandings and the listener continues to check that he or she has it right. The listener also asks questions in order to get the best possible understanding of the speaker's position. Once the speaker is satisfied that the listener understands and can articulate his or her position, the students switch roles. We use reflective listening in a variety of activities and workshops throughout the semester.

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  • Marta Brown

    I try not to allow "blurting;" I call on students by name. I also put all my students' names on strips of paper, and I randomly pick one to answer the question. I agree that a few moments of silence is a good idea, too!

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  • Alyana

    I would like to change student who come to class without paper or pencil, and those who just sit there staring at me without taking notes.

  • endalamaw addis

    i am new mathematics teacher in 2014 i enjoyed the post comments students participation is very important in class in all subjects