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Encouraging Participation of All in the Course: Moving from Intact Classes to Individuals Students

Updated: Sep 27, 2018

Todd Zakrajsek University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

The first day of class is a great time to give the students a taste of what your course will be like and a sense of who you are as their teacher. A few weeks into the class is when you get settled into a rhythm and really start to get a better sense of who your students are as individuals. This, of course, will depend heavily on the size of your class. That said, even with classes of one hundred students or more you will see distinct personalities emerge. If your class is comprised of twenty or thirty students, then you should be able to really get to know them.

In getting to know your students, it is important to consider the bias that you bring to the course. In particular for this blog, your perception of class participation and how you feel about your students in the classroom. How important is attendance? How much does raising hands signal that a student “knows” the material well? When a student contributes frequently but superficially do you assume that student is more engaged with class content as compared to the student who volunteers less often? Are there other signs that students are engaged in the class discussion? What types of contributions are being made that exhibit quality over quantity? Do you have unconscious biases, such as how long you wait for some students to respond versus others or which students will likely provide the best responses?

During every class session, read the room by watching individuals. Are students taking notes, nodding along as others speak, or even advancing the discussion by building on the comments of classmates? Are verbal responses merely defining terminology, or do they make connections between the text and real-world examples? Analyze the extent to which certain examples or content areas are received by individual students. Take note when student responses are merely noise to fill the void when you are not talking. Overall, look for individual characteristics that emerge within your course as a community of learning is being established.

As you teach, it is common to see a class as an intact entity with just a few distinct personalities, even in a smaller class. Increasingly, I feel it is important to fight that urge to see students as a collective and really get to know them as individuals. As you get to know them, be ever mindful of your own expectations, contributions, and biases such as those noted above. Think of ways you might be able to use your own strengths and experiences to create a classroom environment that maximizes the educational and social outcomes of each individual student. It may sound daunting, or even impossible, to even consider customized learning for each person in the entire class, but that should not stop us from trying. It might be easier than you think to create classrooms where a variety of types of learners all benefit.

The easiest default in a typical college classroom is to allow students who are extroverts and risk takers dominate responses to questions and class discussion. In a future blog, we can look at getting those who contribute too much to back off just a little. For now, let’s focus on how to get some of the rest of your students involved in the engaged learning experiences in your course. For example, some students regularly come to class unprepared. For those students, it is important to determine who is unprepared by “choice” and who is unprepared because they are having trouble grasping the material.

Keep in mind that it is often less threatening to one’s ego to claim a lack of preparation for class than it is to admit that one is finding it difficult to understand the material. For those who need a bit of motivation to come prepared, a quiz at the beginning of class will help students to come to class ready to discuss the material for that day.

As all students are pressed for time these days, a quiz might be the added motivation that most students need. These quizzes do not need to be extremely challenging, but they should be challenging enough to ensure the required preparation is done. That is, one should not be able to get responses correct simply by guessing. For students who do not understand the material, quizzes will not prepare them to engage in class discussions or to answer your questions during a discussion lecture. For those students, failed quizzes might add additional pressure and cause less engagement with the material. Struggling students who are not prepared for class need assistance to understand the material. Carefully structured small group projects and discussions might be the best way to get their voices into the class. Ask increasingly difficult questions as part of the discussion, and when you know you have struggling students reserve some of the easier questions for those students.

How many students do you have in your class with social anxiety? Students who are naturally a bit anxious in social situations may prepare for class but find it difficult to contribute. To assist those students, it may be helpful to send discussion questions out to the entire class the day prior. This will give students a chance to think about how they will respond before class occurs. Introverts are another group that benefit from time to think about questions before they are asked in class. Keep in mind that extroverts will not be hindered by this approach and those who are socially anxious, shy, or introverts have a chance to think about their response and even practice what they may say prior to the time they are in the classroom. Some discussion items in advance may well generate better discussions for all students.

Do you have English as second language students who are bright and want to participate, but nervous to speak out in class as they are? Having students email after class indicating what they would have said during the discussion if they had the opportunity to speak will assist these students in getting their thoughts and opinions included into the course. You can also start the next class period by bringing up those points. This allows those voices to become part of the class and will help those students to become more comfortable speaking in front of classmates. Starting a class with summarized written comments from the previous class is also a fabulous transition to the next block of material and will assist all students.

In this blog, just a few ideas are presented to get you rolling. You are an individual faculty member and the way you teach is unique to you. Your students are individuals and how they learn is likely unique to them. There is a common phrase in higher education that as faculty members “we teach the way they were taught.” I do not feel that saying is accurate. I think “we teach the way we best learned.” If we are increasingly supportive of a variety of type of learners and identify ways to help a wide variety of students to be successful we will see more diversity with respect to who is successful in higher education. As a result, we are likely to increase the diversity of the types of teaching in higher education, which will allow a wider variety of learners to be successful. This cyclical pattern of learning and teaching would certainly benefit everyone.

Discussion Questions

  1. From your own experience as a student, which type of learner characteristics are typically most often encouraged and rewarded by faculty members? That is, when faculty members think if the “ideal” student, what do you think comes to mind?

  2. Describe a situation in which you were a student and an adjustment by a faculty member would have helped you to make better quality (or more frequent) contributions to course discussions.

  3. When you teach (or if you were to teach), what expectations do you have of your students to contribute to class discussions? What could you do to encourage participation from the different types of students who might wish to contribute?

Additional Readings

Major, C.H., Harris, M., and Zakrajsek, T. (2016). Teaching for learning: 101 intentionally designed educational activities to put students on the path to success. New York, NY: Routlege.

Rocca, K. A. (2010). Student participation in the college classroom: An extended multidisciplinary literature review. Communication Education, 59 (2), 185 – 213.

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Nice post. By encouraging participation, we make learning easier. And whenever teacher is teaching he/she would always expecting a good response from students. If the response is good then it boost teachers morale. Participation is must from both the sides for better understandings.

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Todd Zakrajsek
Todd Zakrajsek
Sep 05, 2018

Based on Howard's comment....I hadn't really meant this had to be about grading the classroom participation. I agree one is going to grade participation it has to be done carefully...and done well. The post really is more about how to encourage students to participate who might not otherwise feel comfortable participating.


The post-discussion email (asking students what they would have said) is a great strategy! I'm going to add that one to my toolbox. With respect to students who are introverted and/or experience social anxiety, it might be useful to allow them a broader range opportunities to participate: let them to post online to a class discussion forum, engage them in a think/pair/share activity, create chat stations around the room for rotating small group discussion, etc.


Howard Aldrich
Howard Aldrich
Sep 04, 2018

Todd, your description of monitoring students for the depth & added-value of their in-class contributions suggests to me that you might be thinking of grading classroom participation. (I do.) If so, then you might want to give readers some ideas on how to do that reliably & validly. E.g. do what some b-school professors do & keep a seating chart (or an alphabetized class list) and note immediately after class which students participated & at what value. The "value" can just be 0 or 1, or a scale with a wider range. But, if instructors are going to monitor participation, then need to do it with the same care as they would in doing their research data collection.


Tara Harvey
Tara Harvey
Sep 04, 2018

A great post about an important topic! Anyone who enjoyed this might also want to check out my blog post about examining your syllabus as a cultural artifact:

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