Encouraging Broad Participation

Many students find class participation to be scary, at least initially. Even when an instructor creates a supportive and engaging classroom environment and encourages advance preparation, some students will still feel uncomfortable about speaking in class. Beginning discussions with relatively easy or open questions about accessible topics can help students gain confidence. In addition, some faculty members find that incorporating contemporary media related to assigned readings and course topics demonstrates relevance in ways that can encourage greater participation.

Participating in classroom discussions requires skills that students can develop over time. Modeling and explicitly teaching communication skills can support the ability of all students to grow over the course of the semester. If discussion will be a significant part of learning activities in your course, consider dedicating some time to goal-setting and opportunities for reflection and self-assessment during the semester to encourage student growth.

Continue reading below for additional considerations and techniques for encouraging participation from as many students as possible.


Use pairs and small groups
Many students feel more comfortable sharing their ideas with one or a few peers than with the class as whole. Many Georgia Tech faculty members use the “Think-Pair-Share” approach to get conversations going. This technique gives students the opportunity to think through their responses to a prompt individually before being asked to share it, first with a peer and then with the class; some faculty ask students to write down their thoughts initially, as well.

Analyzing material assigned in advance or brief cases or problems introduced during class often works well with small groups of 4-5 students. The “People” function in Canvas provides a useful mechanism for creating groups. Providing clear expectations for each group (they may work on the same topic or question or tackle different ones) is key.

Take into account differences among students
Some students hesitate to participate because they do not feel confident about the material, fear how others may respond to them, or have little experience with class participation. In any course, students vary in their preparation and comfort level with the concepts and skills targeted. They also vary with respect to how quickly they process questions and develop their response. When structuring a guided discussion, take into consideration those differences and what kinds of supports, or "hints," might help the students who may be less likely to feel confident. During small group discussions, many instructors find it helpful to move around the room to make it easier for students having difficulty to pose questions and ask for help.

Students also differ in their interest and willingness to engage with peers, instructors, and the class as a whole around particular questions. Paying attention to these differences and group dynamics, taking steps to support reluctant participants, and helping enthusiastic students remember to share “air time” can enhance everyone’s experience during class discussions. 

Race, ethnicity, and country of origin can influence students’ comfort with the kinds of discourse typical in college classrooms. Establishing and enforcing clear guidelines for respectful discussion and providing students with opportunities to provide feedback on their experience in the class can help instructors support the ability of all students to grow in their participation skills.

The instructor’s gender, as well as the gender composition of the class and of individual students, also may affect classroom participation. While instructors cannot control the gender composition of the classroom, they can often control the composition of small groups they create within classes and can take steps to create an atmosphere that feels welcoming to all.

Cultivate an atmosphere of openness and respect
In addition to establishing and maintaining respectful “ground rules” for conversation in class, many students feel more comfortable participating when they perceive the classroom environment to be open, inviting, and accepting. Learning and using students’ names as early as possible in the semester communicates the instructor’s interest in students as individuals. When feasible, interacting with students who arrive early or stay late after class, and making it easy for students to touch base with you informally, also can create an inviting atmosphere.

Giving students opportunities to get comfortable with one another also can facilitate greater openness in the classroom. Introductions are more challenging in large, auditorium classes, but even with several hundred students it is possible to provide brief opportunities for students to introduce themselves to others seated near them. In larger classes instructors might also consider using a brief, online questionnaire to invite students to share some relevant information about their backgrounds that can be compiled and shared with the class.

Of course, the professor’s response to student contributions also communicates how “safe” it may be to share ideas in the classroom. Responding to an incorrect or poorly formed argument as gently as possible communicates respect for students. When discussing topics likely to yield several competing viewpoints, instructors can signal openness to different views through their responses; for example “That is an interesting observation. Who has a different perspective on _________________ ?” Smiling and providing other encouraging nonverbal cues also contributes to an atmosphere where more students take risks.


References and additional resources

Henning, J. E. (2005). Leading discussions: Opening up the conversation. College Teaching, 53(3), 90-94.

Hollander, J. A. (2002). Learning to discuss: Strategies for improving the quality of class discussion. Teaching Sociology, 30(3), 317-327.

Thayaril, S., Borrego, M., Prince, M., Nguyen, K. A., Shekhar, P., Finelli, C. J., & Waters, C. (2018). Strategies to mitigate student resistance to active learning. International Journal of STEM Education, 5(7). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40594-018-0102-y.

White, J. W. (2011). Resistance to class participation: Minority students, academic discourse, cultural conflicts, and issues of representation in whole class discussions. Journal of Language, Identity, and Education, 10(4), 250-265.

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