May 9th, 2017

Questions to Ask When Students Won’t Participate

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pile of question marks

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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