Promoting Effective Classroom Participation

Raised handsClassroom participation is a feature of many course designs. It can result in insightful comments and interesting connections being made by students, and can foster a high level of energy and enthusiasm in the classroom learning environment. However, poorly managed participation can also lead to instructor frustration and student confusion. Below are strategies to consider using to make your classroom participation more effective.

What does “participation” mean? 

  • Be clear with your definition and intention. Participation is often equated with discussion, which typically involves a lengthy conversation with the whole class. However, participation can also include short exchanges between instructors and students, or within small groups of students. If you include participation in your roster of assessments, you need to clearly communicate to your students what it will entail and why you are including a participation component. Do see participation as the outcome of student preparation? Are you interested in the quality of contributions or quantity? Does participation enable students to take risks and make errors as part of their learning? Does it increase their exposure to other ways of thinking? Does it enable them to demonstrate and develop their communication skills? Is it possible for a student to participate too much?
  • Seek consensus. While you can independently prepare a rubric that explains how you will assess participation, you may find that students will participate more enthusiastically if you ask them to help define what constitutes effective participation and then ask them to develop a rubric with you. Bean & Peterson (1998) suggest asking students to identify features of effective discussions they have experienced in the past, including the behaviours and roles of both the students and the instructor.

How do I encourage participation?

  • Foster an ethos of participation. Hollander (2002) discusses the need to present participation as a collective responsibility of the class rather than just an individual responsibility. In order to facilitate a conversation where connections are made, students need to view their participation as a contribution to a shared experience. Asking students to respond to a peer’s response helps to facilitate a conversation. As well, positively reinforcing such contributions builds this sense of collectivism.
  • Teach students skills needed to participate. Students may not yet have the skills required to participate effectively. A discussion about characteristics of effective participation can reveal undeveloped areas in your students: ask them how they have participated in previous courses, and whether they could use some assistance.
  • Devise activities that elicit participation. Discussion-based activities such as case-study analyses, role playing, and jigsaws encourage students to talk with one another and with the instructor. To be effective, however, they typically require clear instructions, including timelines. With one-on-one exchanges, you can adopt a deep questioning approach, probing students about the reasoning behind their responses, sometimes doing so repeatedly to achieve greater depth (“Yes, but why do you think that?”). Participation can also be facilitated by certain learning technologies. For example, you can use clickers to collect students’ responses to multiple-choice questions. You can extend the learning with clickers by having students first respond individually and then having them respond again after discussing their ideas with their peers. Some instructors, too, encourage participation via micro-blogging technologies such as Twitter: students have the option of participating verbally or of typing their contributions into a live Twitter feed.
  • Consider your position in the room. Moving away from the front of the classroom can sometimes promote better participation. If students perceive that all comments must be channeled through you, you become a gatekeeper for participation and it becomes harder to promote a sense collective responsibility. Try moving to the side or even the back of the room and see how students respond. 
  • Ask students to assess their own participation. This strategy begins with having students set one or more goals for their participation at the start of the term. Hollander (2002) suggests that these goals need to be concrete and attainable in one term, and they should submit them to you in written form. At least once during the term, you should ask students to then assess their own participation: What is working well? What could be improved? What progress are they making on their goals? If you have developed a rubric for assessing participation, ask students to assign themselves a grade based on the rubric, a justification for the grade, and their plans to improve it if it falls below their expected level of achievement. Giving students a sense of responsibility for their participation can be very motivating.
  • Ensure that everyone's contributions are audible. In a large classroom, or even a small one with poor acoustics, it might be difficult for a student making a verbal contribution to be heard by a classmate on the other side of the room. This can detract significantly from the class dynamics, as students will become frustrated or cease to pay attention if they can't hear what is being shared. Frequently, students will need to be encouraged to speak loudly and clearly. Try reminding them that they should be addressing their comments not to you, who might happen to be standing close by, but to the classmate who is sitting farthest away. When a quiet student starts to speak, it's often helpful to resist your natural inclination to move closer, and instead to move to the other side of the room, so that the student is encouraged to speak more loudly. In some cases, you may need to reiterate a student's contribution, to ensure that everyone hears it.
  • Consider the use of an online poll before the class discussion. Students may be more willing to participate in debates and discussions if they can see that other students share their views. The results from a pre-class anonymous poll can be presented to students as a starting point or to set the stage for their in-class discussion.

How do I assess participation?

  • Keep written records. You need to develop a system that works for you. Some instructors use class pictures, name tents, seating charts, or attendance lists to keep track of student names so they can record participation each class. Teaching assistants may be needed to help record students’ contributions if your class is large. In these large classes, it may be necessary to ask students to state their name before making their comment so that participation can be accurately recorded. A simple check mark system (one check for good contributions and two for outstanding ones) can be enough to record evidence of students’ contributions. Such a system can be complemented by having students record their own contributions for submission after every class or as an aggregate every few weeks. Regardless of the system that you choose, you need one that is efficient so that the process of assessing student participation does not become too onerous for you or the students.
  • Consider the students’ self-assessments. You should provide your own written feedback on their self-assessments. You may also want to meet individually with students whose self-assessment of their participation differs markedly from your assessment.
  • Use peer evaluation. In small classes, where students know one another's names, it is feasible to ask each student to evaluate the participation of everyone in the class; doing so not only gives you, the instructor, useful information, but also encourages each student to consider his or her participation in the context of the class as a whole. Even in large classes, students can reasonably be expected to assess the participation of classmates with whom they have worked closely, for example, in a small group or group-project setting. Having a clear rubric helps students make these peer assessments in an objective and "evidence-based" manner.

Further resources

  • Bean, J.C. & Peterson, D. (1998). Grading Classroom Participation. In R.S. Anderson & B.W. Speck (Eds.) New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 74 (Summer), 33-40.
  • Brookfield, S.D. (1999). Discussion as a Way of Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc.
  • Davis, B.G. (1993). Tools for Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc.
  • Hollander, J.A. (2002). Learning to discuss: strategies for improving the quality of class discussion. Teaching Sociology, 30 (July), 317-327.
  • Related Centre for Teaching Excellence teaching tips: