Take a chance on student participation

Many instructors are in a bind when it comes to class discussions: they want everyone in the class to contribute, but they do not feel comfortable calling on students who do not raise their hands to speak. 

Kurtis Swope, in a 2006 article for the Teaching Professor, writes of an inspired technique to avoid this conundrum. He brings some many-sided dice (bought at a game store) to class, and whenever he asks the class a question, rolls the dice to determine which student is to answer. Swope notes that he still allows for open discussion in his classes, in which students freely respond to one another. But students quickly warm to the dice-rolling, Swope reports, adding that the technique "generates a sense of anticipation and attention because any student can be called upon at any time." 

It's a good idea, not least because it involves those students who are too shy to raise a hand or otherwise unwilling to volunteer in class discussions without singling anyone out. By leaving the decision up to chance, the technique takes a part of class that students can be quite sensitive about and turns it into something that's truly democratic and maybe even a little exciting. 

Source: Kurtis J. Swope, "Roll the Dice and Students Participate," in The Teaching Professor, April 2006, 20(4), 6.

Make the back row off limits

Nicole Matos, College of DuPage

Before students arrive on the first day of class, use yellow “Caution” tape (available at any big-box office supply store) to block off the back row seats. After students arrive and sit elsewhere (it will be fun to note their reactions: many “get it” right away), use this device to discuss issues of student engagement and attention. Ask how many students would have elected those back row seats if they had been available, and discuss why. Reiterate your desire to have all students active and engaged—no hiding!—regardless of where they sit.

My experience using this strategy is that it usually generates two useful outcomes. First, it tends to elicit students’ worries and fears about the class. Quiet students sometimes admit to a fear of being called on in a predatory caught-you manner while others might explain that they fear the subject matter. Having these worries expressed openly from the outset allows me to soothe the nervous and explain my true reasons for seeking full participation.

Second, students who might otherwise have been troublesome are often the first to admit boldly, with a smile, that they would have chosen the back corner to be lazy and go unnoticed. Getting these students to immediately engage with me as an instructor, learning their names, and setting the precedent that they do indeed talk in class, is often the first step to winning them onto my side and, in the end, better assuring their success.

Give out participation marks two weeks at a time

Many teachers now devote a portion of their students’ final grades to a participation mark. Here’s a way to make participation grades actually encourage participation, while making the task of calculating those marks an easier job. 

Instead of waiting until the end of term to calculate your students’ participation grades, keep a running record of their contributions, and give out (or post) interim participation grades every two weeks. This has a number of benefits. Significantly, it gives students an accurate picture of how you see their in-class contributions. A poor interim participation mark can motivate quiet students to start taking part in class discussions and activities. In addition, by keeping track of students’ participation throughout the term and giving out grades so often, your task at the end of the term is a no-brainer. No longer do you have to try to remember how much a student participated in classes that took place months earlier. This takes what can feel like an overly subjective process and make it much more straightforward.

Shuffle name cards for a better discussion

 Kim Shankman, Benedictine College 

I have students write their name (the way they want to be addressed, formal or nickname) on an index card the first day of class. I use these to take attendance, but more importantly, I shuffle the cards and use them as my method for choosing students to answer questions. That way they all know that the process is random, I don't have to deal with the deer in the headlights ("please please don't call on me") looks scanning the class choosing someone to call on, and I also am not tempted to rely on the same group of "old reliables" (generally prepared students) to answer questions.

First day of class: Meet Your Teacher

Most teachers, I’m sure, make sure to leave time during the first class to take student questions, primarily about the syllabus and the shape of the course ahead. But it’s worth underlining the importance of student involvement right from the start, letting them know that your desire to hear their questions and concerns is not just a superficial courtesy (“Any questions? OK then…).

Here’s a way to encourage students to take ownership of the course. After a brief introduction, distribute the syllabus, and perhaps highlight a few important points. Then divide the students into groups of four and ask them to take time to review the syllabus thoroughly. Have each group come up with questions for you: about the syllabus, about the subject matter, about your qualifications to teach the course, about your expectations from them. Emphasize that a wide variety of questions relevant to the course are acceptable, not just strict matters of course policy. You can have each group choose a representative to ask their questions, if you don’t want the discussion to become a free-for-all.

The exercise, by insisting upon student questions, will encourage those students perhaps too shy or just not usually disposed to asking questions in class to speak up. It will expose any ambiguities in your course materials pretty quickly. It will, with luck, establish your classroom as a place where students are invited to speak regularly. Ideally, as well, it will signal that you care about their expectations and opinions about the course and are planning to work with them throughout the semester to create a successful course.  -DG

Source: "13. Play 'Meet Your Teacher.'" Robert Magnan, ed. 147 Practical Tips for Teaching Professors. Madison: Atwood, 1990. 5-6.

Student answers for student questions

Mel Silberman suggests distributing index cards to your students after a lecture or a class discussion. Have each student write down a question about the material on his or her index card. Collect the cards, shuffle them, and redistribute them to the students. Now ask the students to read their cards and think of answers to their questions. If you have enough time, you can go around the room and have every student give an answer. Otherwise, ask for volunteers or call on students to read their questions aloud and give answers.  -DG

Source: Mel Silberman. "Everyone is a Teacher Here." 101 Ways to Make Training Active. Johannesburg: Pfeiffer & Company, 1995. 174-75  

Encourage attention and discussion with "listening teams"

Here is an easy strategy to encourage students to listen critically to your lectures and to encourage discussion afterward. In both variations, you begin by dividing up students at the beginning of class.

Variation 1: divide students into four teams, each of which has a specific assignment for that day's lecture and discussion. 

  1. Questioners - After the lecture is finished, this team has to ask two questions about the material.
  2. Nay-Sayers - After the lecture is finished, this team comments on two points with which the team disagrees. 
  3. Yea-Sayers - After the lecture is finished, this team comments on two points with which the team agrees. 
  4. Explainers - After the lecture is finished, this team has to give two specific examples that explain the lecture. 

After the lecture, allow the teams to confer. Let each team then report to the class the results of their discussions.

Variation 2: divide students into groups of four students each. Each student will play a specific role within his or her group. 

  1. Example-Giver - This student listens for examples or applications of key concepts.
  2. Questioner - This student asks two clarifying questions about the material presented in the lecture. 
  3. Devil's Advocate - This student comments on two points with which he or she disagrees.
  4. Team Player - This student points out two areas of agreement with the lecture material.  

The groups confer after the lecture, with each student presenting his or her contributions according to his or her role.  

In both variations, the exercise serves to encourage students to follow the lecture more closely, as well as structure the discussion so as to reinforce the material presented in the lecture.  -DG

Source: Variation 1 from Mel Silberman. 101 Ways to Make Training Active. Johannesburg: Pfeiffer, 1995. 101-103. Variation 2 from Mel Silberman. Active Learning: 101 Strategies to Teach Any Subject. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1996.

Encourage all students to talk, with poker chips

 In many discussion-heavy classes, only a handful of students dominate the conversation. Here’s a technique, from Bob Burdette, Assistant Professor of Accounting at Salt Lake Community College, to encourage everyone to participate. At the beginning of class, pass out two or three poker chips to each student. Whenever a student answers a question or makes a comment, she turns in one of her chips. When a student is out of chips, she can no longer speak, leaving those students with chips left to answer the remaining questions.  -DG

Source: Bart, Mary. “Classroom Discussion: Professors Share Favorite Strategies for Engaging Students.” Faculty Focus. Magna. 9 July 2012. Web. 24 July 2013. http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-teaching-strategies/classroom-discussion-professors-share-favorite-strategies-for-engaging-students/

Low-stakes pre-writing

At the beginning of class, give students a question about their reading, the material covered in the last class, or a topic that will be relevant to that day’s class, and give them ten minutes to write an answer. This writing can go ungraded, or it can be turned in and count for a tiny percentage of the final grade. The writing gives students time to think, reflect on the material, and get into the right mindset for a discussion in class. It can also give shy students the confidence to speak up in class, because they only have to look down and read from their paper to make a contribution.  -DG

Source: Lang, James M. On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2009, 90-92.

McEvoy Minute Around

 Begin class by handing your watch to a student in the front row. Explain that each student will talk for a minute—an initial contribution to the day’s discussion, a response to the reading, a question to explore—before handing the watch to the next person. This is only practical, of course in smaller classes. “‘The longer my students sit without saying anything,’ one professor told [Ken Bain], ‘the harder it is to bring them into the discussion.’” The activity’s title comes from its progenitor, University of Wisconsin professor Arthur McEvoy.

James Lang adds that you don’t need to use the watch-gimmick. “Simply establish that at the beginning of the class, each student has a brief time period either to respond to a question that you pose, or to explain what she thought was relevant, or interesting about the reading or material for that day’s class. As the students offer their statements, you take notes, and use their comments and ideas to fill out or alter whatever discussion questions you have planned.”  -DG

Source: Bain, Ken, What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2004, 130-31. Lang, James M. On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2009, 92.

End of class conclusions/questions exercise

 Leave 5-10 minutes at the end of each class. Ask students, “What major conclusions have you drawn from today’s class/reading/discussion?” and “What questions remain in your mind?” Have students write down the answers to these questions, then go around the room, asking for some of their answers. Let those answers drive a discussion that helps cement the content of that day’s class, and/or contribute to what you teach in the next class.  -DG

Source: Bain, Ken, What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2004, 103.