Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Some simple tips to improve student participation

Our good friends at the Faculty Focus blog share some easy tips for broadening the number of students who participate in class:
  1. "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.'"
  2. "Wait. Research is very clear: Teachers frequently overestimate 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."
This next one is one I hadn't heard of, but I like the idea very much. Has anyone tried it?
      3."Use the three-hand rule and don’t call on anyone until there are three hands raised."

I'd be interested in hearing from others some successful ideas for improving student participation. Here are a few of my own:

  • In-class writing: I've discussed the merits of this before.
  • Select a student to read aloud. It sounds corny, but I've occasionally asked students to read a key passage from our text aloud. In some cases, it seems like the student sees that he won't melt if he speaks in class and becomes more involved.
  • Put yourself somewhere different. In keeping with number 2 above, most of my eager participants are in the front of the class. I've had some success moving somewhere else in the classroom, so as to distance myself from those who participate a lot and engage those who don't.
  • 10 second end-of-class 'shout outs'. I sometimes ask students the most important thing they learned about the day's topic, and I call on each student to give a fast 10 second or less response.
  • Written mid-class questions. Ask students to write (on notecards, say) some questions they have about a topic or text you just covered. Then select a few of the most astute questions and engage the questioner. This seems to build the confidence of more reticent students.
Any other tips out there on how to expand the number of students involved in class discussion?


  1. About 20-30 minutes into each class period, I will ask the students a, "what do you think of this argument?"-type question related to the material. Then, I give them a few minutes to talk it out with a person or two sitting next to them. When we re-convene as a class, I start by calling on people to give their feedback. I usually preface it with something like, "Let's hear from some people who haven't spoken in a while. How about..." Then, after we've heard from four or five students who might not normally volunteer, I ask for volunteers. Often, the non-volunteers have something insightful to say; apparently they just need the extra prompting. Plus, this way everyone knows that they might be the next to be called upon, so there's more motivation for them to stay focused.

  2. In my experience the in-class writing works well for longer classes but in the fifty-minute classes I have been teaching recently, they can easily suck up a third of the class time or more once you allow for discussion springing off of it. That's not time wasted, of course, but it does often mean I have to skimp on other lecture-parts so it's something I have a hard time fitting in. As a compromise, I usually do a weekly low-value "participation" exercise (maybe 1% of the final grade?) where they rehearse some part of the reading, explain what some particular quote means or why the philosopher thinks it's true, or compare the position with some earlier reading. The understanding is that I will call on some randomly-selected student to answer the question in class. Then I invite other people to respond, either with why they think the original student misunderstood the philosopher or why they disagree with the philosopher. It has a lot of the benefits of in-class writing (and even more, since some students have learning disabilities that make that particular mode of expression difficult) but seems to take up less time. Of course, I think it only really works because I check that students actually all did the work.

  3. I often try to come up with ways that I can both call on students who don't talk often, and yet be sure they have something to say. That includes in-class writing, take-home very short and informal writing assignments (like an in-class writing assignment, but focused on a question they need more time to reflect upon), and asking them to report after a group has discussed something. I haven't yet, but keep thinking I should, do the strategy of telling them in advance I'm going to call on people so they should have read the text and have something ready to say the next day. My compromise is to call on them only when I am certain they do have something prepared.

    Another strategy I've used a bit lately is to have students write answers to some discussion question (or even suggestions for class ground rules) on a piece of paper, then either crumple them up and throw them around the room ("snowball" technique), or give them to me to shuffle. Then each student reads out someone else's answer. That way no one has to know what anyone else said, but all the answers are given. This works for small classes, but you could adapt for larger ones by just having only a few students read out what's on the paper, or have them discuss in groups what's on the paper.

    A colleague suggested something that I tried a few times, with some success: give students different coloured cards, or cards with numbers on them, and say that for this question I'd just like the "yellow" cards to answer, or something like that. Sometimes that can work to get some of the quieter students to speak, depending on how the cards are handed out. I usually then open it up to everyone after all the "yellow" card people have spoken (or maybe open it up to yellow and green first), so that everyone gets a chance to participate. I don't use this method for a whole class, b/c it can be quite artificial and somewhat stifling, but every now and then for a little bit it can work to get some students speaking who don't usually do so.


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