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Encouraging Student Participation
Ode to Simon & Garfunkel’s First Big Hit
Some classes are just too quiet—don’t readily ask questions, don’t leap to engage in discussions. The students might be attentive, and engaged in learning, but the silence is deafening, and makes it hard to create the classroom you want. You end up talking louder, talking faster, sweating, babbling, thinking that they’re enjoying watching you squirm…. And then you hear “hello darkness, my old friend.”
Here’s some things to consider:
1. Learn as many names as you can. If students don’t feel that they’re anonymous, they’re more liable to participate.
2. Periodically divide students into pairs or small groups. Students find it easier to speak to groups of three or four than to an entire class. Divide students into small groups, have them discuss a question or issue for five or ten minutes—or even less—and then return to the whole class. Choose topics that are focused and straightforward: “What are the five basic textures of metamorphic rock?” or “What are the two most common kinds of intentional communities?” Have each group report orally and record the results on the board.
3. Have students write comments/answers on 3x5 cards. Ask students to jot down an answer to a question you’ve posed. Many students are worried about thinking on their feet, so allowing them to write something down first takes away some pressure. You can then do one of two things: you can ask them to read what they’ve written, or you can ask them to pass the cards three or four people to the right. This way, students are reading what someone else has said, and you can ask them to comment on the answer they have just read.
4. Avoid “yes or no” questions and “What do you think?” questions. They’re sure to shut down discussion.
5. Don’t just say you’re interested in what students think: show them that you are. Comment positively about students’ contributions and reinforce good points by paraphrasing or summarizing them. Bring students’ outside comments into class. Talk to students during office hours, in hallways, and around campus. If they make a good comment, check with them first to see whether they are willing to raise the idea in class, then say: “Jana, you were saying something about that in the hall yesterday Would you repeat it for the rest of the class.”
6. Have students pose questions on 3x5 cards. At the end of class, have students write down the one or two questions they have about the material for the day. At the beginning of the next class, pose some of these questions to the group as a whole, or redistribute the cards and ask individuals if they can answer.
7. Draw all students into the discussion, by asking whether they agree with what has just been said or whether someone can provide another example to support or contradict a point: “How do the rest of you feel about that?” Don’t be afraid of asking individuals questions (but be prepared if they don’t have anything to say. Move on.)
8. Encourage those who haven’t done so to come to your office hours.
9. Arrange seating to promote discussion. 1) Ask students to sit in a semicircle so that they can see one another. 2) At a long seminar table, seat yourself along the side rather than at the head. 3) Ask students to print their names on folded 3x5 cards and display them on their desk or the table. In larger rooms that aren’t full, ask students to sit down front. In one class, the faculty member has students sit in groups by section, so that they can periodically talk among themselves.
10. Ask students to lead a discussion session sometime during the term. Have the leaders distribute three to six discussion questions to the class a week before the discussion. Encourage creativity for the discussion. During class the leaders assume responsibility for generating and facilitating the discussion.
11. Tactfully correct wrong answers. Any type of put-down or disapproval will inhibit students from speaking up and from learning. Say something positive about those aspects of the response that are insightful or creative but do point out those aspects that are off base. Provide hints, suggestions, or follow-up questions that will enable students to understand and correct their own errors: “Good–now let’s take it a step further”; “Keep going”; “Not quite, but what if we...” A whole future newsletter will be devoted to this topic.
12. Make your body language welcoming to questions. Don’t stay behind the podium. Get up, move around. Walk over to a student who raises a hand (but don’t loom).