In a recent poll on the Engaging Minds blog, we asked readers which posed the bigger challenge: getting to know your students, or getting students to participate in class. Of the 98 respondents, 86% stated that getting students to participate proved more challenging. Given this response, we thought we’d investigate some ideas for building in-class participation.

Do you have suggestions to share? Offer them in the comments!


Why might students avoid in-class participation?

In McKeachie’s Teaching Tipsauthors Marilla Svinicki and Wilbert J. McKeachie present five potential reasons that students may be reluctant to participate in class discussions: 

    • Student habits of passivity
    • Failure to see the value of discussion
    • Fear of criticism or of looking stupid
    • Push toward agreement or solution before alternative points of view have been considered
    • Feeling that the task is to find the answer the instructor wants rather than to explore and evaluate possibilities (47)

Do any of these resonate with you? Consider the following ways you can overcome these challenges in your class, and create a classroom climate that fosters students’ willingness to contribute to discussions.

How can you encourage class participation?

Svinicki and McKeachie offer the following suggestions for addressing the reasons that students might avoid class participation:

  • Pause the discussion every so often to summarize the points that have been made, then tie them back to the larger issues you’re covering in the class. You might also invite students to summarize the points themselves, then share their recap with the class. These steps can help students see the relationship between that particular conversation and the overall content of your course.
  • Avoid offering answers and solutions too early in the discussion. Allow students the opportunity to discover answers through the process of discussing the topic. Serve as a facilitator, rather than the giver of answers.
  • Create a supportive environment by adopting an encouraging manner and correcting any errors in a way that students will consider respectful rather than overbearing. Give students a chance to respond to the criticism and re-examine their initial idea in light of the insights or information you provided.
  • Remain willing to try out new discussion strategies and techniques in your class. If students feel like you’re giving them something fresh, they’ll be more likely to remain engaged and participatory. (Svinicki and McKeachie, 47-48)


For additional ideas and tips, review the following posts:

Class Participation and Student Success

Encouraging Non-Participants to Join in Your Discussion

Facilitating Discussions that Inspire Deeper Thinking

Reference: Svinicki, Marilla, and Wilbert J. McKeachie. 2014. McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers,14th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.