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Encouraging Participation in Your Classroom

Strategies for helping even the shyest student to speak up

September 15, 2015

Shira Lurie is a doctoral student at the University of Virginia researching early American political history. Follow her on Twitter @shirby9 and on her blog.



Heather’s excellent post on fostering on active online discussion got me thinking about analog participation. That is, participation in the classroom. It can be tricky to foster a lively discussion every week, especially one that includes all of the students in the class. Here are a few suggestions to help encourage even your shyest students to speak up:


Any TA worth her salt knows that arranging classroom seating into a circle or around a conference table is important for fostering discussion. But equally important is where the TA chooses to sit. It can be tempting to place yourself at the head of the table or near the blackboard, but this often causes the conversation to filter through the TA. Students are oriented toward the front of the class and so are less likely to engage with each other. Instead, try sitting in a different spot each week. Sometimes it may be necessary for you to be near the blackboard or projector, but in other weeks, mix it up. By changing your seating and avoiding the head of the class when possible, you will encourage your students to see the whole group as equal participants in the conversation.


In addition to the geography of your classroom, setting the right tone is also important. The more comfortable your students are with you and each other, the more likely they are to be willing to share their ideas with the group. When possible, it can be helpful to arrive to class a few minutes early and have some casual conversations as people filter in. This will cultivate a friendly atmosphere and allow all of you to get to know each other better. A friend of mine has his students do a “name quiz” about three weeks into the semester. He has them pull out a blank piece of paper and write down the names of everyone in the class. With this method, everyone has learned each other’s name within the first month.


Despite the beautiful Simon and Garfunkel song, the sound of silence is often the stuff of nightmares to TAs, especially if it is their first time around. There is nothing more awkward than asking a question and receiving blank stares. But it is important to remember that a lack of responses does not necessarily mean you have asked a bad question. Students need time to process what you have asked and to form their answers. Jumping in to fill the silence too early is a mistake. Instead, count backwards from ten in your head. Most likely, by the time you get to two, someone will have raised their hand. In the unlikely event that ten seconds pass without a response, rephrase your question and count again. By allowing long silences, you will encourage your students to take the time to think before they respond. The extra time will also give nervous students a moment to screw up their courage before raising their hands.


It can be fun to change up the classroom dynamic with an activity every so often, like a debate or a review game. The increased structure can be a great opportunity to encourage the participation of those students who don’t often speak up in group discussions.To keep things interesting and encourage diverse participation, I like to include an element of randomness when calling on students during activities. For example, try writing down the name of each student on a popsicle stick and then putting the sticks into a jar. Every time you ask a question or need a new participant, simply pull out a stick and read off the name. If you want to ensure that everybody gets called on at least once, remove the sticks from the jar once they’ve been picked. This method makes the activity more exciting and avoids calling on shy students simply “because they haven’t spoken yet.”  


It can also be helpful to circulate some discussion questions ahead of time. Some students find it difficult to contribute spontaneously to the conversation. This method gives them the chance to formulate their answer ahead of time and perhaps even practice saying it out loud. Pre-circulated questions will also be useful to those students who are having trouble with the readings by offering a guide to the most important information and themes for that week.  


Once you’ve got your students eager to participate, be sure to check out Amy’s post on grading participation and the responses she got in the comments.


I hope I’ve encouraged your participation, as well! Please comment on these tips and provide some of your own below!

[Image courtesy of Flickr user smannion, used under a Creative Commons License]


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