One of the biggest fears new instructors have is that no one is going to speak up in class. And, in fact, many teachers are frustrated by the fact that students often do not respond to their questions or seem unprepared for section. Here are several tips on how to get students involved in discussion under the following headings:

Set the Stage
Help Students Prepare
Promote Student Thinking
Demonstrate Your Interest
Work with Everyone

Set the Stage

Explain How You Evaluate Participation

Having section participation count in the course grade acknowledges the value of student engagement during section. In many sections the participation grade constitutes a substantial portion of the overall course grade (10 to 20%), but students may be unclear or concerned about how their participation grade is calculated. To help ease students’ concerns (and to keep your own criteria clear), you need to explain explicitly what counts as effective participation.

Remember that effective participation does not need to be limited to talking in section meetings. Providing students with an array of different modes of participation promotes student learning and encourages greater inclusivity in the classroom. Universal Design for Learning emphasizes that learners differ in the ways that they can navigate a learning environment and express what they know. Some may be able to express themselves well in written text but not speech, and vice versa. Some may be more comfortable speaking up in small groups while others shine in whole group discussions. (For more on Universal Design, see the GSI Ethics Course, Module 3).

You might, therefore, expand the definition of participation to include speaking with you during office hours, responding online to others’ posts in bCourses, or taking part in virtual chat rooms. For writing-based classes, perhaps you might count in-class written responses or peer reviews during workshop days as participation.

Your faculty instructor may have criteria, or you can generate your own, or you can define participation in dialogue with the students. Consider not only quantity of talk but also quality of engagement. Once you have established criteria, you need to keep detailed records of students’ participation in each section meeting.

If time permits, you may want to send each student brief feedback about their participation grade in the middle of the term. This serves two purposes: it encourages those who are doing a good job, and it alerts those who are not that they need to modify their participation if they want to improve their grade by semester’s end.

Encourage Early Discussion

Try to get everyone talking in the first couple of section meetings. Once students “break the ice,” they’ll be more likely to share ideas throughout the semester. Introduce activities in which students get to know each other, so they feel more comfortable voicing ideas in front of one another.

Suggestions for icebreakers appear in the Pre-Semester Preparation chapter of this Teaching Guide.

Make Your Section Goals Clear

While remaining flexible to the unpredictable turns that classroom conversations can take, you should come to section with a lesson plan that articulates your main goals and the activities or questions you have planned to meet those goals. Some GSIs like to provide their students with the goals, or the “take-home message,” at the beginning of class, in a handout or on the board. This will make section feel more focused and productive. Students participate more when they have a sense of what to expect. Also, prioritize the goals you set for a class session and be realistic. Planning only two or three goals and creating activities that promote discussion, debate, and deep learning is more effective than tackling many goals in a superficial way.

Create an Inclusive Space

It is important to establish an inclusive space in the classroom so that students feel comfortable expressing their viewpoints and ideas. Critique ideas, not people. Let students know that stereotyping, homophobia, racism, sexism, etc., are offensive. While it may occasionally be appropriate to address offensive language privately outside of class, it is usually best to address the issue in class to clarify expectations for all students. Students should know that they can contact you outside of class if something in section makes them uncomfortable or is upsetting. Don’t ever dismiss students’ concerns or feelings. You can find more on this topic in Module 1 of the GSI Professional Standards and Ethics Online Course.

Help Students Prepare

Ask for Written Responses or Free-Writes

Consider asking students to write a response to a question you pose. Then you can choose to call on a couple of students to read their response. This will give everyone time to prepare something. This is a great opportunity to involve students who participate only minimally or not at all. Call on someone who does not speak up much or who may seem disengaged.

Set Pre-Discussion Assignments

Students will be more willing to actively discuss the material in section if they have had the opportunity to think about it before class starts. To this end, GSIs can devise assignments that hold students individually responsible for engaging with the material before coming to class.

For example, have your students write responses to questions you give them in advance. Asking students to post their responses and read those of their colleagues in bCourses before coming to class is a great way to get them to come prepared to section. Online discussions can facilitate in-class discussion. (See Teaching with Technology.) You can also have students keep a reading “journal” (one page of free-form response) that they need to hand in or post electronically. Alternatively, select specific passages in a text that are central to the text’s argument and ask students to come prepared to work with those passages. You can also ask students to identify the paragraph or section of the reading that confused them the most or the one they found most useful in understanding the overall message of the reading. Or you can have students fill out a worksheet before coming to class.

All of these small assignments will encourage broader participation in class. Giving assignments ahead of time requires that you keep at least a week ahead on the readings, and that you develop a system of grading pre-discussion assignments (usually by a check/check-plus/check-minus system).

Create Group Assignments

Instructors can devise assignments to facilitate more group involvement. Organizing students into small groups and giving them explicit instructions will get more students involved. You can have the groups report their findings back to the rest of the class. Once students have formulated and discussed their ideas in a small group, they may feel more comfortable sharing with the rest of the class. (For more group work suggestions, see Group Work and Classroom Activities.)

Create Roles for Students

Instructors can ask two or three students to lead or facilitate part of a discussion one week. Be certain to give students guidelines and a format, as well as some moral support. (If you have a large section you may need to make the discussion leader groups larger in order to ensure that all students have the opportunity to present a question or issue for discussion.)

You can also create other roles for students such as a summarizer or a recorder to recap the key points made in the day’s section. You might also establish an observer whose role is to comment on the discussion. Be sure that students who facilitate discussions understand that they must involve the other students and avoid giving a presentation.

Promote Student Thinking

Avoid Programmed and Yes-or-No Questions

To encourage discussion, ask broad questions — “how” or “why” questions that require the students to think through a process, evaluate information, predict outcomes, form opinions, etc. Avoid “programmed” questions, in which you answer the question yourself before students have a chance to respond (e.g., “Why doesn’t the moon have an atmosphere? It’s because it has weak gravity, right?”). Questions with a simple “Yes” or “No” answer can also cut off discussion. For more on asking good questions, see “Asking Questions” (Davis, 2009, 118–26).

Give Time to Think

It often happens that a GSI asks a complex question that students need time to consider before responding to, especially if it embeds multiple questions or pulls in a new perspective. If no one answers your question right away, resist the urge to answer it yourself or move on after just a few seconds. Around eight seconds is considered a fair amount of time to wait for students to formulate a response.

Rephrase the Question

If no one responds to your question after eight seconds, try rephrasing it. If you still get no response, don’t be afraid to ask the students why they didn’t respond. Was the question vague or unclear? Do they see connections with the reading? (And yes, it is okay to ask your students if they did the reading.)

Invite Student Questions

Remind your students that there are no “stupid” questions — if they have a question, chances are that someone else in the class has that question, too. Never assume that something that seems easy to you will be easy to your students. “What questions do you have?” usually gets a better response than “Do you have any questions?”

Ask Them to Respond to Another Student’s Comment

Involve more students by asking questions that agree or disagree with a comment: “How do the rest of you feel about that?” “Does anyone who hasn’t spoken care to comment?” “Is there anyone else who agrees or disagrees?” Discussions run best when the students are responding to each other. Try to keep your talking to a minimum and encourage students to respond to each other’s comments, to look at each other, and (when possible) to use each others’ names. Think of yourself as a discussion guide rather than a leader.

Don’t Be Afraid to Say You Don’t Know Something

You are not responsible for knowing everything! Far from undermining your authority, admission of ignorance about something shows that you are not defensive about your knowledge. It also imparts the important lesson that part of wisdom is knowing what you don’t know. Use the knowledge gap as a learning opportunity. If the problem is one that can be speculated about, ask students to consider how one might arrive at an answer. Tell the students you will look up the information (and be sure to do so). Alternatively, for accessible facts, ask a student to look up the information after class and report back online or in the next session.

If a question leads too far off topic, you can suggest that the student speak with you about it in office hours or via email.

Demonstrate Your Interest

Give Nonverbal Support

Keep eye contact with students while they are talking. Nod along so that they know you are listening. If they feel as though you’re interested in what they have to say, they may volunteer more often. If a student who is rarely involved contributes to the discussion, give the person a smile or a nod to let them know that what they have to say is important.

Move Around the Classroom or Lab

Sitting behind a table for the whole class can lower energy — both yours and the students’. It also gives the students sitting next to you more of your attention. You will find students regularly sitting far away from you either to avoid participation or to divert attention from their lack of preparation. Try varying where you stand from class to class, or move around the room during class — get up to write on the board, to work with students in smaller groups, or to show interest in a quieter student’s contribution.

Tactfully Correct Wrong Answers

While it is crucial that students distinguish between correct and incorrect answers, instructor disapproval or a put-down will discourage people from sharing again. If a response is off track, try to coach the student toward the right answer or approach. Provide hints or suggestions. And say something positive about the aspects of the response that are insightful, original, or creative. Try things like “Good — now let’s take it a step further”; “Let’s go back a step — tell me more about xyz”; “Keep thinking about it.”

Bring Students’ Outside Comments into Class

If a student makes a good comment in office hours or on a paper, check with the person to see if you can bring it up in class. Then, in your next meeting, say: “Anna, you were saying something about that in office hours yesterday; would you mind repeating it for the class?” You might consider using this technique with students who otherwise do not speak up much. Be sure not to single out the same person repeatedly.

Work with Everyone

Be Aware of Who You Are Calling On

Research studies show that many teachers, without realizing it, respond more favorably to male students than to female students. Be sensitive to this and be certain that you’re communicating equally with male and female students and with students from all backgrounds. Call on them equally, make eye contact with them all, and support them all. If you are concerned that you may not be calling on people equally, you might find it helpful to keep track of whom you call on in class, either on your attendance sheet or a class roster. You can also ask a colleague or GSI Center consultant to observe your class and take notes.

Participation Is Not All Oral

Students who remain silent during class discussion are not necessarily shy or reserved. Silence is a behavior, not a character trait, and there may be many reasons a student chooses not to participate orally in a particular class or social environment. Get to know your students through other venues such as office hours, email, and their homework for the course. Learn about the ways they do go about participating in the class — perhaps through reflection, or writing emerging thoughts and questions in their notes, or formulating careful contributions to an online discussion forum. Learn to acknowledge the ways they participate, and — especially if the course requires or highly values individuals’ oral participation — also let them know that the entire class would benefit from hearing their thoughts in discussions.

Engage Your Students

One way to get students engaged is to connect with their daily lives or interests. This fosters intrinsic motivation, as does giving them an intriguing problem to solve using course material.

Not every student becomes intrinsically motivated in every class; having participation in section count in their course grade creates an extrinsic incentive to show engagement.

Limit the Contributions of Students Who Dominate

Make sure to wait after you ask a question to give all students an opportunity to think about your question. Don’t just call on the first hand that goes up. Provide six to ten seconds of “wait time” before calling on someone. Though this may seem long and drawn out to you, keep in mind that students and teachers have different timing needs, and most students need time to think before they can respond.

You can also have students write down a response to your question before you ask for oral contributions. This gives everyone time to think. You can then choose a couple of people to respond who don’t speak up much.

Consider calling on students who don’t raise their hand. Let students know at the beginning of the semester that you will be doing this. Some students may want to contribute, but might be more inclined to wait for a good opening or invitation.

Working in small groups is also a good way to distribute turns at talk, but you may need to take steps to prevent one or two students from dominating the group discussion. One way to do this (as discussed above) is to assign roles to students in the groups, e.g., recorder, summarizer, time keeper, etc. Assign a dominant student a specific role that limits participation, such as summarizer.

If the problem continues, you should speak to the student outside of class. Be certain to let the student know how much you value his or her participation. If the student’s comments are good, let the student know, but point out that not all students are getting the opportunity to participate. Normally you will see a remarkable difference in the very next section meeting if you do this. If not, speak to the student again.

To nip this type of behavior in the bud, set discussion guidelines early in the semester that stipulate that no one person should dominate the discussion and that all should have the opportunity to participate.