Requiring Participation in Large Classes

Jonathan Golding describes how his teaching experiment helped students overcome their fears and improved learning.

May 30, 2014

Teaching a large lecture class that may contain 200 or more students can be an intimidating job: so many students, so much potential for dead time. But when you teach a large lecture class you know there can be no silence. You hope that students will help fill the void with comments and questions, but that is rare. Recently I noticed that participation in my large classes had actually decreased.

I could have rationalized the lack of participation as beneficial, because it meant an uninterrupted lecture. Instead, I wanted to understand why students were not participating, and then determine if participation could be increased. Therefore, before last semester I went around asking colleagues and students about participation in large classes.

The general consensus: students were afraid, very afraid. They feared speaking in front of others and they feared “being wrong.” Such fears were likely a function of students' rarely having to speak in large classes. According to students, the lack of a participation expectation in a large class gave them license to sit back (if they even went to lecture at all) and passively listen; any participation would be handled by those few students who liked to hear themselves talk. Thus, most students in large classes had no experience speaking in front of their peers and failed to develop the confidence necessary to speak one’s mind in front of others.

What struck me about the above information was that current trends in higher education might be accelerating the demise of student participation. These include a greater number of large lecture classes. As far as faculty responding to these trends, it appears most are taking the path of least resistance by continuing not to require participation. Students seem content with no participation requirement since it means less effort.

For my part, I decided to approach participation in a new way — I was going to require participation in a class of 200 students. This meant redefining how I lectured in order to transform class into a more active learning environment where student learning involved more than just listening.

Instead, the class would involve doing, watching others do things, talking to others, getting feedback, and having students make mistakes and then learning from these mistakes. I hoped my new approach would motivate students to attend class and allow students to be more attentive and develop greater self-confidence. Also, I wanted to determine if requiring participation would lead to 200 students becoming an inspired community of thinkers. Lofty goals, but why not?

Here’s what I did: Each student was required to participate three times. Participation included any meaningful spoken contribution pertaining to class material; right or wrong it still earned credit. I encouraged spontaneous participation, but students could be called on to participate. I continually stressed participation as part of the learning process. In addition, I made clear that every contribution had value to the class as a whole; students were encouraged to see themselves as part of the class community.

Participation earned students 9 percent of their final grade; not participating led to a 0 for this grade component. Each student recorded his or her name and date of participation on a 3x5 card and then turned in the card(s) at the end of the lecture. This method allowed me to keep cheating to a minimum, because I could see that a student who turned in a card actually spoke in class. The cards meant that I did not have to worry about keeping track of participation in real time and allowed entering grades to be relatively easy. Each lecture resulted in students turning in 20-30 cards.

My initial attempt with this participation requirement proved successful.  Fewer than five students failed to meet the requirement and it took only a short time for students to accept the requirement and to view participation as a normal part of every class. There were still students who told me outside of class that they were anxious about speaking; I tried to develop ways to make participating in class less stressful.

For example, I told an anxious female student that I would call on her the next class so she could be prepared with a question/comment. In all, students’ comments and questions in class showed a sophistication I had never seen before in my large classes and made clear that they had a deep understanding of the material. A survey I administered showed that the majority of students felt the requirement helped them to think about lecture material and the course readings.

In the end, despite my best efforts, there were  still some students who felt anxious and others who (for various reasons) simply didn't like the participation requirement. One student said “I’m not a quick thinker/responder and I like to be sure of my answers.” Another stated that the requirement was “just kind of a hassle.” Finally, there was a student who said, “I hate class participation in large classes — too much competition to get points.” Also it was the case that  my lectures did lose some of their “flow.” Nonetheless, I believe the benefits of this requirement to the students outweighed the costs. Most students valued attending class, shared new experiences, learned from one another, and gained confidence speaking spontaneously in public. For these students it appeared this requirement empowered them with regard to their education and their personal lives. Three student comments illustrate this point:

I liked the class participation a lot: it motivated me to keep up with what was going on, and a lot of time introduced new ideas into my head to think about. I really think it made me into a much better student.

I learned not only from you, my Instructor, but I also learned from my peers, which is a bonus to my education

I have always been shy and after being required to participate in such a large class, I am not scared to ask questions/make comments in my other large classes. This was very beneficial to me.

The required participation added a greater sense of community and enhanced opportunities for learning. My hope is that others will consider this approach participation in their larger classes. It will require some effort to change one’s current lecturing style, but the value to students can be enormous and may even serve to retain students who often feel dissatisfied after taking large classes.


Jonathan Golding is a professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky.


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