Increasing Student Participation

Here are 10 ways to encourage student participation in your class:

1. Start small.  When you ask a question, have students first discuss it with their partner.  Then, have the partners pair up (groups of 4) and share.  When students get comfortable sharing with a group of 4, start having them make groups of 6, then 8, then 10.  Each time, students will become comfortable with a slightly larger group.  Eventually, they’ll be ready to share with the whole class.  And they’ll already have had lots of practice!

2. Scaffold reluctant or struggling students.  Let them know that you are going to help them participate.  Ask them what would help or what would make them feel more comfortable.  One strategy is to choose one question you’d like them to share about and let them know the question ahead of time.  Then they can prepare an answer and be ready when you call on them.  Or, you can let the student choose which question they would like to answer out loud.  Another strategy is to let the child know that you are only going to call on them when you know they have the right answer (because you saw it on their paper or heard them say it during turn and talk).  This will give them the confidence to share their idea because they’ll know it’s right.

3. Allow for wait time.  Giving kids time to think about their response is one of the best ways to improve participation (and the quality of the answers).  When I ask a question, I tell students to put a thumbs up on their desk (or knee- if we’re on the carpet) when they are ready.  When everyone is ready, I call on someone to share.  The students know they won’t be called on until they are ready.

4. What you reward is what will improve.  Rewarding and/or praising participation will bring it into focus in your classroom and will encourage more students to participate.  You can reward individual students with stickers, tickets, or Class Dojo points, or give team points for good group discussions.  Be sure to be specific when giving the reward: “I love how team 3 has all of their hands up to share.”  “J– is getting a sticker because that was an excellent idea that she shared with the class.” “I love how L– wasn’t 100% sure about his answer, but had the courage to share it anyway.  That’s really something to be proud of!”

5. Use cards to make sure everyone participates.  At the beginning of class, give everyone a participation card (it can just be a card that says “participation” on it).  When they share, they turn the card in.  They can still share after that, but they have “done their job” of sharing at least once, and the rest is bonus.  At the end of the lesson, provide an opportunity for anyone who hasn’t shared yet to speak.  Reluctant students have three choices: they can share at the end, they can write down their idea/ answer and turn it in, or they can come over to you and share their idea/ answer to you privately.  This sets up the expectation that everyone will share at least one idea during every lesson, and provides for student accountability.   But, it also differentiates and gives your students choices for how to share.

6. Get the kids to “buy in.” Have a discussion about why participation is important.  How does it help us learn?  How does more participation make our class more exciting and interesting?  Explain how it helps you, the teacher, make decisions about what to do next. Talk about how explaining things helps you solidify it in your mind and understand it better.  Chart out reasons why participating is important in the classroom and in life.

7. Assign specific roles.  Sometimes students don’t participate in discussions because they aren’t sure exactly what to say or do.  Being specific about roles and expectations can help.  For example, Partner A is going to explain which operation we should use for this word problem, and Partner B is going to explain where the unknown goes.  Or, Partner A is going to give his or her opinion, and Partner B is going to ask them, “But, what about…?” (Give them specific sentence starters if necessary!)

8. Use random chance to keep kids on their toes.  Some teachers have a jar of popsicle sticks with each kid’s name on it.  Some of us use random name generators on our white boards or in Class Dojo.  When a student’s name pops up, it’s his or her turn to share.  This helps keep kids accountable, since they do not know when they will be called on.  This strategy can be anxiety-producing, though, so make sure your students all feel comfortable sharing before you start implementing this.

9. Ask REALLY good questions.   If your questions are open-ended, allow all students to access the ideas, and are interesting, your kids will want to answer!  And they’ll have tons to say about it, too.   I was visiting another school recently, and the first graders had just finished reading “A Fine, Fine School.”  The teacher asked, “Do you think it’s possible to learn everything you need to know by going to school?”  Boy, did the kids have a lot to say about that!  And, they were going back to the text to find evidence to support their answers!  This question was perfect because there was information to support both sides in the text- there truly was no right answer.  And everyone wanted to talk about it!!

10. Watch your responses.  Ultimately, it’s what happens when a student gets stuck or when a share doesn’t go smoothly, that will determine how comfortable your kids feel.  If students know they have a way out (Would you like to phone a friend or ask the audience?), they will be more willing to take the risk of putting themselves out there.  Another strategy is to ask, “Should we come back to you in a minute?”  And then give the student a signal (I use a thumbs up) to show when he or she is ready to try again.  For answers that have right and wrong answers, sometimes I’ll say something like, “Well, no, but I really like the way you think.”  Or, I’ll be light-hearted and funny and say, “Nope, but thanks for playing!!”  Or, sometimes, “WOW- that was better than a right answer!  It was a wrong answer with some really great thinking behind it!”  This puts the emphasis on the quality of thinking and the process, which is what learning is all about.

Happy Teaching (with Amazing Student Participation)!!
Christine Cadalzo