adult student talking in class June 7

Improvising Great Classroom Discussion

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I was watching a video of several of my students teaching this week. I had to be away for a conference, and they were scheduled to teach that day anyway, so I asked our Center for Teaching Excellence to record it. I would evaluate them later. Although most of the students in the class are planning to be English teachers, it’s not an education class. For that reason, I planned to pay closer attention to the content and preparation than to their actual pedagogy.

However, as I watched the video, I kept noticing places where discussion would be on the verge of beginning, only to see it die almost immediately. The students were prepared, and they were often asking the types of questions we want them to ask. Why did the discussion keep faltering? I had to start looking at their pedagogy.

What I discovered was that they didn’t know how to build on each other’s comments. A student would make a statement that could easily lead to a larger discussion, but no one responded, as if there was nothing else they could say about the comment. The student leading the discussion would then move on to some other topic. When I realized what was happening, I remembered the “Yes, and . . . ” idea from improvisational comedy.

The “Yes, and . . . ” idea has been rather popular of late, stemming from a rising interest in improvisational comedy; Don’t Think Twice, a movie about an improv group; and a variety of comedians and business leaders speaking and writing about the idea. For those not familiar with the “Yes, and . . .” idea, it’s almost exactly what it sounds like. In improv, the actors are supposed to accept whatever premise another actor begins with; they say “yes” to the setup. And then they try to build on the situation or line of dialogue, the equivalent of saying “and . . . ”

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pile of question marks May 9

Questions to Ask When Students Won’t Participate

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Participation continues to be one of the most common methods faculty use to get students involved in their learning. It’s a go-to strategy for many, but various studies have shown that it’s not always used in ways that realize its full potential. We go to the well so often, we fall into patterns and do not observe or analyze what we are doing and why.

Meanwhile, getting students to talk in class, much less provide meaningful contributions, is like pulling teeth. Whether they’re shy, unprepared, or simply reluctant to share their ideas, getting students to talk in class is a constant struggle.

The point here is not to find out who’s to blame for the lack of discussion, but rather to encourage teachers to take inventory of what’s occurring in the classroom. Is there something else that might be done to encourage students to get involved?


Ideas and Strategies to Encourage Participation 


Have you given students something to talk about? Something to read? Questions to consider as they read? A reaction paper that captures their thoughts and gives them something concrete to contribute?

Discussion Prompt: “When you do the reading, I’d like you to note a passage that you disagree with. We’ll use those passages to start our discussion of the reading.” Alternatively, the selected passage might be something that relates to a personal experience or something we’ve talked about in class, or something you don’t understand, never thought about before, or would have a question about. This option works best when the prompt is singular and specific.


Have you talked about the role of participation in this course? Why do you want it? What it contributes to learning? How do you feel about wrong answers and mistakes?

Discussion Prompt: “I encourage participation in this course for five reasons: 1) it gives me feedback so that I know how you’re thinking about and understanding the content; 2) it gives you practice speaking like a biologist, political scientist, engineer, philosopher (whatever the field); 3) it gives your classmates the chance to learn from someone besides me; 4) it helps you develop an important communication skill; and 5) it gives us a chance to get to know each other. I don't expect you to perfect--you'll make mistakes and so will I. That's how we learn.”

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students in lecture hall April 6

Participation Policy Examples

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Here’s a collection of five different participation policies. I encourage you to use them to stimulate thinking and conversations about how a participation policy's content and tone can influence learning and classroom climate. Which policies work best—given the course, its content, the instructor, and the students? The objective is to use these examples to stimulate reflection on participation policies, in general, and on your policies, specifically.

At the end of the article is a set of questions to encourage reflection, discussion, and analysis. For example:

  • Which policy aligns most closely with your thinking about participation?
  • Which policy would you not use? Why?
  • Do these policies reveal something about the teacher? If so, what?

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University students study in classroom with female lecturer April 1

Facilitation Skills: The Way to Better Student Discussions

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Most faculty aspire to engage and involve students in interesting and insightful discussions. But these in-class and online exchanges frequently disappoint faculty. Students come to them unprepared. They engage reluctantly. Their individual and unrelated comments take the discussion in different directions. There can be awkward silences that force faculty to rephrase questions or make statements in an effort to restart the discussion. Unprepared students tend to deal with discussion topics superficially, and they don’t delve deeply into the issues. Teachers soon feel compelled to add content depth and detail, and the more teachers talk, the less students contribute. Unfortunately, in many cases, discussions morph into lectures and students seem just fine with that.

Are faculty aspirations for discussion unjustified? Are they unrealistic, given today’s college students? No. Discussion remains a powerful instructional tool. It affords students the opportunity to learn from and with each other. Students phrase ideas in ways that help other students understand. One student’s question often asks something many students would like to know. Different perspectives are shared, and students come to realize that not everyone understands or experiences things in the same way. Discussions can be stimulating, provocative even. They can cultivate critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. Students learn to craft arguments and to refute them. Discussions can model civil discourse. For all these reasons and more, good discussions promote significant learning experiences.

At the crossroads between what discussion can be, and often is, stands the teacher whose challenge is easy to understand yet complicated to execute: lead and guide the exchange, but without controlling and directing it. What makes discussions engaging is the free flow of ideas, but these ideas stop flowing freely when teacher talk dominates. As teachers, there are several factors that make it easy for us to assume a commanding position in discussions. We have content expertise. We are in charge of the course and who gets to talk. We wield grading power. It’s not surprising that students direct their comments to the teacher during discussion and not to each other.

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student raising hand in class March 27

How Do Students Learn from Participation in Class Discussion?

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Despite numerous arguments favoring active learning, especially class discussion, instructors sometimes worry that discussion is an inefficient or ineffective way for students to learn. What happens when students make non-value added, irrelevant, or inaccurate contributions? What about comments from non-experts that may obfuscate rather than clarify understanding? What about students who speak only to earn participation credit rather than contribute substantively to the discussion?



male professor calling on student March 13

Participation Points: Making Student Engagement Visible

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As I contemplate my syllabi for a new semester, I possess renewed hope for students eager to discuss anything at 8 a.m., yet I have taught long enough to know that I will simply appreciate clean clothes and brushed teeth. As reality sets in, I add to my grading criteria an element that I hope will encourage engagement from even the most timid learners.


student participating in class January 10

Learning More about Student Participation

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A lot of good research has been done on participation in college classrooms. Here are some key findings and references that provide excellent background and reasons why working to get more students participating is so important.

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smiling students in large classroom January 10

Classroom Participation Strengths Inventory

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Understanding temperament is very helpful in understanding the learning styles and approaches. So extroverts tend to prefer very high levels of external stimulation, tend to be energized by social activity, may avoid solitude, and are oriented to the outer world. Whereas introverts may easily feel overstimulated in social settings or exhausted by social activity. So they may seek solitude to recharge their batteries, and their orientation may be more likely to the inner world of thoughts and ideas.

Let's make the next connection to learning. In terms of preferences and in terms of the conditions in which students perform best, extroverts tend to prefer to work with others and learn with others, so project work, collaboration, group work, these are all preferences of the more extroverted students.

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pedagogical research_active participation December 1, 2016

Strategies That Increase the Number of Students Who Participate in Class

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  • Increase your wait time.
  • Talk about how you think discussion is better when many students participate.
  • Get students to discuss what makes participation a valuable learning experience for them.
  • Don’t let some students participate too often.
  • Listen carefully when students speak and thank them for their contributions.

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