Students have differing levels of comfort around classroom participation. Some will jump right into the course, answering questions and discussing their viewpoints from day one. Yet others are more reticent. Many don’t respond because they’re afraid that their fellow students will mock what they have to say; or, they may think that they have nothing valuable to contribute and therefore remain silent.

Ideally, you want to get all students involved and engaged in your discussions, even on that first day. However, it can, admittedly, be a challenge to get all of your students warmed up to the idea of contributing to the class. To encourage active participation from the outset of the term, Marilla Svinicki and Wilbert McKeachie recommend a technique called “question posting,” which can open the door to student engagement, right in your first class session. If you’d like to use this technique in your class, try the suggestions we’ve summarized from McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers, Fourteenth Edition:

1. Ask a question that encourages a variety of responses. For example, you could ask about the expectations or concerns they have about the course; or, you could ask which goals they hope to achieve by taking your class.

2. Give students a moment to jot down their responses. This gives all students the opportunity to consider how they would answer your question.

3. Invite students to share their ideas. You may wish to restate the answer, as this helps you confirm with the student that you’ve accurately captured the meaning of their contribution. This practice also demonstrates active listening skills and gives the rest of the class an additional opportunity to reflect on what the student had to say.

Note: To maintain an environment that fosters open interaction and participation, demonstrate interest in what all students have to say. Refrain from discarding or discounting any of their responses. But, if you want clarification on a particular point, or need the student to provide additional information, do ask the student to elaborate on his or her answer.

4. Write their answers on the board or projector; this helps capture all the ideas and enables the class to review everyone’s answers. (p. 23)

In addition to bolstering students’ comfort and willingness to participate, Svinicki and McKeachie note that students can see other benefits, such as an increased familiarity with others in the class and a deeper sense of the value of collaborating (rather than competing) with fellow students. Hopefully, they’ll also gain an increased sense of their own responsibility to contribute (rather than relying fully on you or their classmates to provide answers).

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

How do you encourage active class participation? Share your ideas below, or submit them to [email protected].