by Minerva Santos, Associate Professor
Language and Cognition
Every semester brings new groups of students with different academic experiences, personal backgrounds, needs, and personalities, but there is one common characteristic that all classes share; consistently, there are students who do not participate. By the first week of class, educators can definitively identify the students who are comfortable expressing their ideas and those who prefer to be silent.
There are several reasons why students do not participate, including shyness, lack of confidence, low self-esteem, and high anxiety. Some students may be reluctant to participate simply because they are not prepared, not interested, or not motivated. Also, participatory absence may be caused by a lack of connection to the subject matter. So, what can we do, as educators and facilitators, to increase classroom participation and help students become more engaged in the learning process? Here are some ideas.
Create a positive classroom environment. The most important aspect of the classroom setting in relation to participation is that it be non-threatening. The classroom should be a place where students feel genuinely safe to communicate their ideas, to make mistakes, to think out loud, to take risks, and to fully engage in the learning process. Students should be aware that all communications are valid opportunities to learn. An encouraging environment fosters students’ thinking, creativity, and provides the foundation for healthy interactions.
Maintain a task-oriented classroom. Students should be busy in the classroom as this contributes to high motivation and helps increase confidence. Students should be participating in a variety of activities which allow them to engage in discussions and problem-solving. Group work is a perfect activity for this type of engagement; also, students generally are more willing to participate in smaller groups. A simple group activity may ask students to write responses and share them with their group or with a partner. Another group activity may require students to work together on a common task, for example, discussing a topic, solving a problem, conducting research, or answering questions. These types of activities not only encourage teamwork but also help students, especially non-participating students, to engage with the content and contribute in a meaningful way.
Build in time for discussion. Students should be able to express their thoughts, ideas, interpretations, and opinions with confidence. They should be made aware that their responses are valuable. I usually preface discussion time by including, as part of the instructions, expressions such as “every response is important,” “everyone should express themselves,” “remember, everything you say will be respected,” “no response is wrong here,” “feel free to ask questions,” and “mistakes are part of learning.” Discussion time is a short period of time, five or ten minutes, where students express themselves about a given topic or question. For example, I may ask at the end of a lesson “What did you learn today?,” “What do you think is happening in our next class?,” “If you designed a quiz, what will it contain?,” “What do you think about today’s reading?” These few minutes of discussion time can go long way, especially when you trying to bring in the quieter students. Also, you may be surprised by how much information about teaching and learning these few minutes can yield.
Expect to Participate
Prepare students to anticipate participation. When preparing lessons, you can easily anticipate what questions you will ask for a specific topic. You can consider giving these questions in advance as an assignment. Another angle to this technique is to ask students to create their own questions for the class. Having students know in advance what they are going to say eases any anxiety they may have about participating and helps them gain confidence. Giving students responsibilities that require communication is a simple way to increase participation in your class.
To learn more about participation in your classroom, consider examining the status of your classroom interactions. Are the interactions in your class more teacher-student oriented? Are you providing opportunities for student-student interactions? Who is doing most of the talking? This exercise can elucidate information that may inspire you to plan more classroom activities that provide students with different opportunities to participate.
Equally significant is to have students evaluate their participatory status; you may discover some interesting facts about your students and their participation level. Helping students become aware of their level of classroom engagement may help them gain some insight into understanding who they are as students. Take a few minutes and give students the space to evaluate their level of participation. Ask them to answer the following questions: How am I doing in class? Do I participate enough? How do I feel about participating in class? Their responses may be surprising; you may discover interesting information about students’ perspectives about participation. When I do this activity, I find that students are honest about the reasons they don’t participate. They admit when they are shy, fearful, or unprepared. Interestingly, I have also learned that sometimes lack of participation is related to culture; and on occasions, students reveal that personal problems are interfering with the quality of their classroom performance.
In conclusion, students should be empowered by their classroom experiences, and participation is an experience that not only contributes to learning but also helps them develop personally. By actively participating in the classroom, students build better relationships with fellow students and teachers, and they can increase confidence and self-esteem. Additionally, it is important to note that classroom participation is inextricably linked not only to the learning process but also to overall academic success. Lastly, participation is also a valuable tool for educators to constructively assess both teaching and learning.