Class Participation

Most of us have explicit expectations for students that they participate in class discussion and we include statements about their participation in their evaluations. We know that despite our clarity and our imploring, some students participate in discussion and others are reticent. Many students receive the same feedback course after course and semester after semester, suggesting that they participate more actively. It seems clear that hoping they participate does not translate into participation. Is there anything we could be doing differently to increase the number of students who participate, the depth of their engagement, or the quality of their contributions?

Likely, a student’s degree of participation is rooted in a number of issues. Students often see a professor as the expert whose job it is to impart information; they might not realize that learning requires their participation or that participation is part of their commitment to the whole class. Alternatively, a student’s lack of participation might be related to low motivation, to shyness, to worry about how they will be interpreted by peers, or to incomplete preparation for class (which in itself is affected by many issues – time management, reading ability, etc.). We won’t know which of these is at issue for any one student without conversation.

Short of meeting with each student individually, as faculty we can consider ways to change the structure of our assignments and classroom practices in order to increase student understanding of the role of participation in their learning, to increase their motivation to participate, and to improve the quality of their contributions. Here are some ideas about how to do this:

  • Make the reasons you care about participation clear on your syllabus and an explicit part of the conversation at the start of the semester.
  • In your norms for participation, make clear that you are creating an atmosphere where we can judge and build on ideas without judging the person. Value contributions for helping us think about the issues, not just for being correct.
  • Consider the different ways that students can be engaged in your class
    • Use small group activities and discussions as well as whole class discussions (having students discuss an idea in pairs or groups of 3 before the whole class discussion generally improves the number of speakers and the quality of their contributions)
    • Use technology tools for anonymous contributions (such as poll everywhere questions)
    • Increase “wait time” (the time you wait before calling on someone or before responding to their initial comments. Generally, increasing wait time results in more students offering comments and also gets students to elaborate on their ideas before we respond to them.
    • Use problem-based learning where students are working in teams to answer questions and present their findings
  • Increase the likelihood that students will come prepared to participate in class
    • Let them know at the end of class what they should be looking for in the reading and what you expect they will come in ready to discuss next time.
    • Give an assignment (based on the readings or other) that should be ready to share in pairs or small groups, present to the class, etc. right at the start of the next class session. Knowing they could be on the spot is often motivating to have something to say.
  • Ask students to write you a short letter about their participation and struggles with participation (either talking too much or too little) that includes one or two strategies they will use to make change.
  • Recognize quiet learners (during and after class)
    • Accept reflective e-mails—after class discussion has occurred
    • Ask permission to share their ideas (with attribution) in the next class session
    • Re-direct very talkative students who don’t fully engage with the content by asking them to support their ideas with research, articles, quotations from the text, etc. Or ask them to use the “Rule of 5” (they have to wait for at least 5 people to contribute before making another comment).

Engaged students are agents in their own education. The responsibility for engagement is not just on the students; we can prepare daily activities to support engagement by providing a number ways students can engage and upping the ante.

Further Reading:

Kelly A. Rocca (2010). Student Participation in the College Classroom: An Extended Multidisciplinary Literature Review. Communication Education. 59(2) 185-213.

Dallimore, Hertenstein, and Platt (2004). Classroom participation and discussion effectiveness: student-generated strategies. Communication Education, 53(1) 103-115

Halm, Diane S. (2015). The Impact of Engagement on Student Learning. International Journal of Education and Social Science. 2(2) 22-33



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