Classroom Participation

While most classes include one or two students waiting for the opportunity to speak, eliciting participation from the class as a whole can often be difficult. Many students resist participating in class. Some reasons include:

  • “Stage fright”
  • Fear of having nothing of worth to contribute
  • Being unprepared for class

Additionally, cultural norms can also discourage participation. While American students may be used to speaking up and even challenging their instructors, in other cultures it may be considered bad manners to argue with or question an instructor.

The first step toward increasing student participation is creating an atmosphere in which students feel comfortable speaking up.

  • Never belittle students or respond with sarcasm
  • While students should be encouraged to respond to and challenge each other's ideas, they should not be allowed to disparage another’s contribution
  • Let students know that they can think aloud and try out ideas (a perfect, fully-formed response is not necessary, although they should still think before speaking)

After posing a question, pause before you call on anyone. Allow everyone time to think about an answer. Let students know that not only are they more likely to master the material and do well in class if they participate, but they are also practicing skills—articulating their thoughts, asking questions, and working with ideas orally—that will be valuable to them in other areas of their lives and careers.

Other ways to foster participation include:

  • Breaking students into small groups
  • Having students write a very short essay before you call on them to speak
  • Having students exchange these essays, so that each student is reading someone else's response

Compelling Participation
Compelling participation by calling on students instead of asking for volunteers is an option. This can prevent the common situation in which a few students dominate the discussion. It also lets students know that they can't passively depend on other members of the class to talk. However, it can generate anxiety for students. If you are going to use this method, you may want to give each student a set number of "passes" which allow them to say that they don't feel like contributing at that moment.

Some instructors require participation by including a grade for it in their calculation of final grades. Before you set up any such grading system, consider it carefully. Participation can be difficult to measure and even more difficult to grade fairly. Consider:.

  • How exactly will you calculate that grade?
  • How will you keep track of student participation?
  • Will students be judged on the quantity of their participation or the quality, and by what criteria will you measure the quality?

Some instructors reserve a portion of the final grade for participation to give them some wiggle room that will allow them to reward students they like and punish those they think have a bad attitude. These aren't fair or defendable grounds on which to grade participation.

It makes sense to align your grading system with your instructional goals, and if you design a course with the aim that your students will improve their oral presentation skills or will learn how to formulate and defend an argument orally, it may make sense to grade participation. Otherwise, you may want to encourage participation without making it a formal requirement of the class.

©2017, School of Graduate Studies, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey