“Learning is more effective when it is an active rather than a passive process.” - Euripides
Student participation not only adds interest to a course, it also provides a way for you to promote active learning and assess understanding. As we’ve known for thousands of years, active learning will produce better outcomes for your students, but it will also be more interesting for you as a teacher.
While it’s common for only a few people to speak up in a group, especially a large class, there are plenty of simple ways to help break down this natural barrier and get your students participating. Below we discuss seven methods to help you to foster an environment where all students know what is expected of them and feel comfortable participating.
1. Plan Ahead
There are many ways to teach a course: lecture, discussion, or cooperative learning are just a few. When planning your course, you’ll need to determine which teaching method you’ll primarily use and how student participation will be integrated. Not every class will need to be the same, but knowing which method you prefer will help you determine your expectations for student participation.
2. Learn Names
You’ll be surprised at how much this impacts student participation, even in professional training settings that are more transient than traditional classrooms. Anonymity is a subtle drag on participation, and students who feel more connected to you and their classmates and less anonymous will participate more. If you can’t manage to learn the names of your students quickly enough, have name placards that are large enough for you to read, and make sure the students use them by placing them where you can see them. The simple act of referencing a student by name could be all you need to spark much improved participation.
3. Set the Tone
Your students need to know what you expect when it comes to their participation. Explain what you envision for the course and how you would like for them to respond during class time. Do you welcome questions and comments throughout the class or only at certain times? Will you allow time for cooperative learning and group work? Are students going to be graded for their participation, or lack thereof? All of these things should be clearly addressed in the beginning of your course.
It is also important to lay some ground rules about what you expect within student interactions. Depending on the age and maturity level of your class, this can be brief or extensive. Simple guidelines such as being respectful, letting people finish without being interrupted and staying on topic are often sufficient.
It’s also worth examining your body language to make sure that you appear welcoming to questions and participation. For example, don’t stand behind the lectern or podium while teaching, as this sends the message that you don’t want to be interrupted. Rather, make a habit of walking out into the classroom and asking questions while you teach. This will send a clear message that learning is the goal, and you’re embarking on that journey with your class, not leading them along.
4. Divide Your Class Into Groups
Every now and then divide the class into small groups, and have them tackle a short problem together. Students who know each other will participate better in a larger classroom setting, and for those students who are intimated by larger groups, a smaller setting can give them an opportunity to provide input and interact with peers. If you keep the problems they’re engaging short and limited to answering one or two questions, for example, you can have run through a mini group session in just a few minutes. Have the groups report back orally in front of the larger class, write their responses on the board, and then discuss them together.
5. Have Students “Write In” Their Comments
Some students, particularly those in larger classroom settings, will be less eager to contribute, or will feel like they can’t think very well on their feet. To help engage these students, pose a question or set of problems just like you would do in a group setting, but have students write down their answers on a notecard. Collect the cards and randomly read out a few answers for debate by the broader class. Ask the author of the card to provide clarity if needed, or additional comments.
6. Listen and Respond Appropriately
Make sure you create an atmosphere that is consistent with your initial message. To do this, be aware of how you are responding to your students. Both verbal and non-verbal cues will either encourage students to participate or intimidate them. Make eye contact with students while they are speaking, and also use eye contact to encourage the quiet students. You will probably have several talkative students who tend to dominate the conversation so try to draw others in by asking them what they think. You may also need to gently ask the more vocal students to hold back occasionally to let other people have an opportunity to speak.
Allow wait time after asking a question, for at least thirty seconds. Be comfortable with silence! Eventually someone will speak up. Don’t interrupt when people are speaking, or allow students to interrupt each other. There will be times when a person responds with incorrect information but even then, let them finish their thoughts. Let those situations be learning opportunities by using questioning or redirection to arrive at the correct answer.
There are ways to hint to students that their initial answer might not be quite right without making them feel like they made a mistake. Ask them to “qualify their thoughts” or ask them to “keep going” or mention they’re “note quite there, but what about X”. It’s often helpful to know the material well enough so that when a wrong answer is posed you can talk about how “person X in the field agreed with you” so they know their mistake was common.
Refer back to comments or questions from students to show that you are listening and thinking about what they have to say. Above all, read the room – if you know your students well, you’ll quickly find out who can take criticism, a little good natured ribbing, and who might be afraid to participate and should be treated more gently.
Once class is over, review which students actively participated. Consider if there are students who need more encouragement to interact in future classes, and make a point to draw them into the discussion in the next class or two. This can be done by asking them a direct question or in the case of extremely shy students, mentioning to them before or after class that you’d like to hear what they have to say.
A lot of the effort to get students participating relies on you, the trainer, educator, and teacher. Make sure you set the tone and start your classes down the right path by using these techniques consistently. Although it may seem like extra effort, the results will be worth it, and once your class understands what you expect from them, they’ll begin participating regularly without effort from you. Lastly, your students will get more out of the class and be better prepared due to your efforts!