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.