It can be frustrating to face a classroom of college students who appear uninterested in the material and topic of the course, or to ask a question of the class and receive only silence in response. How can you increase class participation? Engaging students in learning can be a challenge, but there are many techniques you can use to grab the attention of your college students and hold their interest.

In some cases, you can integrate elements of pop culture into their assignments. But other techniques, including creating low-risk assignments or designing opportunities to role play scenarios, can help you reach those reluctant students and create a more vibrant classroom.

Why don’t college students participate?

If you have college students in your course who aren’t participating, figuring out why they’re not engaged can help you determine the best solution. One major reason for lack of participation is that students aren’t connecting with the material. While there is material that must be covered in every course, there are ways to approach that material that may allow for greater student investment. In their book Teaching in the Pop Culture Zone: Using Pop Culture in the Composition Classroom, 1e, Allison D. Smith, Trixie G. Smith, and Rebecca Bobbitt encouraged incorporating familiar cultural elements into intellectual discussions. For example, they explain, “As teachers of composition, we are charged with the important duty of providing students with tools for engaging in intellectual work that requires careful reading and informed writing. Television can provide text for our students to critically analyze and contextualize both the worlds inside and outside the composition classroom” (Smith, 10). They continue with the idea that television is central to modern culture, and that the identities of students—and teachers as well—are influenced by the shows they love. Using that sense of identity and involving it in classroom discussion or problem solving can create an instant sense of investment in class participation.

Other ways to engage college students in the material include:

  • Using the think, pair, share method, in which students respond to a question independently, then pair up and share their responses with a fellow student, and finally sharing with the whole group afterwards.
  • Announcing a pop quiz for the end of class, but having students group together to create one question for the quiz that will be posed to the class, based on material covered during the session.
  • Using problem based learning, in which real world problems are presented to students, who then work collaboratively to consider possible solutions.
  • Integrating group projects into the course.

Problems that prevent participation

Students may also avoid participating in class because they are worried about sounding stupid in front of their peers. Giving students a low risk form of class participation—such as asking open ended questions with no wrong answers, or encouraging students to free write on the material without worries of being graded on those short brainstorms—may help them to come forward with their ideas. It can also help students participate when the teacher uses their name and integrates humor into classroom discussion. Most of all, if the students feel you as the teacher are not interested in the material, they will see no reason to get excited, so make sure your passion for your subject matter comes through!

Reference: Smith, Allison D., Trixie G. Smith, and Rebecca Bobbitt. 2009. Teaching in the Pop Culture Zone: Using Pop Culture in the Composition Classroom, 1st ed. Boston, MA: Wadsworth.

How do you help students become more engaged with your material?