Whether because of fear, distraction, passivity, lack of preparedness, or another reason altogether, some students shy away from participating in classroom discussions. However, as an instructor, you have goals for your discussion times—and undoubtedly, you have high hopes that all students will want to engage in the conversation. For that reason, you probably want to help those reluctant or non-participating students recognize that, just as they value hearing someone else’s ideas and opinions, other students benefit from hearing their knowledge and perspective.

If this situation resonates with you, you may be interested in some ideas that can raise the level of participation in your classroom. Here, we present a few ideas, based on suggestions in McKeachie’s Teaching Tips, Fourteenth Edition, which can help you encourage your more reticent students to become more actively involved in your class discussions.


  • Create what Marilla D. Svinicki and Wilbert J. McKeachie call “an expectation of participation” (p. 48) in your class discussions. Tell your students the value of participating in discussions—for both the speaker and the listeners. (If participation has an impact on students’ grades, express that as well.)
  • Maintain a welcoming classroom environment conducive to clear and positive communication. If possible, arrange the room’s seating in a circle or semi-circle. Retain good eye contact with and smile at those who seem nervous or uncomfortable.  And call students by name—this helps students (or anyone, really) feel remembered and recognized.
  • Become familiar with your students’ personal interests and areas of expertise, whether by responses to “getting to know you” questions on a worksheet or through one-on-one conversations.
  • Consider breaking the class up into pairs or small groups; have them first cover your discussion topic in these smaller units, then ask them to share their ideas with the class as a whole.
  • Give students the opportunity to write out their response to your question first—then open the floor for discussion. Those who don’t feel confident about “thinking on their feet” may be more comfortable speaking up if they have an answer written down in front of them. (You could also provide the question at the end of a class session, ask students to write out their answers, and come to the next class session ready to discuss their responses.)
  • Prompt students to develop their own questions, which could be used as a part of class discussion.
  • Ask some opinion or experience-based questions that relate to your discussion topic, but which have no “wrong answer.”
  • Invite students to continue the discussion with you and their fellow students outside of class, whether by e-mail, instant messenger, the course’s online discussion board—or, of course, through face- to-face conversations. (Svinicki and McKeachie, 48-50)


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


What are your suggestions for increasing participation during your classroom discussions? Share your ideas below.