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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class discussion December 1, 2016

Online Forum Posts Improve Discussion in a Face-to-Face Classroom

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Jay Howard’s new book, Discussion in the College Classroom (a book that is well worth your time), lays out the research showing that cold calling on students is one of the best ways to get past their “civil attention.” It’s clear to me that once cold calling becomes the norm in a course, using that technique can increase the quality of in-class discussions.

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student asking question in class July 13, 2016

A Practical Approach for Increasing Students’ In-Class Questions

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Much has been written about creating natural critical learning environments in our classrooms, places where students feel free to pose stimulating questions and pursue interesting answers. But how much do we put students’ questions at the heart of our everyday teaching? The answer might be “not as much as we think.” A number of years ago I was frustrated by how seldom my students asked questions in class, even after I encouraged them to do so.