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Inclusive Active Participation Through Non-Oral Methods

Updated: Apr 4

Sarah Otterbeck, Clemson University

Aradaryn Marsh, Clemson University

Key Statement: Why are students not raising their hands? Explore inclusive twists on traditional participation techniques to include more than just oral student responses.


Keywords: Inclusivity, Student Participation, Equitable Engagement 

The Tried-and-True Oral Participation

Orally participating in class (vocalizing ideas, questions, and responses) is the traditional method of class participation, and it has merit. It helps students practice articulating their thoughts, encourages critical thinking, aids in equipping them for most jobs involving speaking and presenting, and can boost their self-confidence (Messbauer, 2013). Oral participation is tried-and-true, so why consider any other approach? There are reasons students might hesitate to participate orally in class. Some possible reasons given by Messbauer (2013) include:

  • cultural differences (e.g., asking questions may be seen as disrespectful)

  • language barriers (e.g., the instruction language is not the student’s first language)

  • previous negative experiences from speaking up (e.g., the student was ridiculed)

  • anxiety or lack of confidence

  • fear of judgment from peers or the instructor

  • feeling unprepared due to outside responsibilities (e.g., caregiving).


In addition, some students may identify as introverts, making speaking in front of a large class unsettling. They may be overshadowed by more assertive voices in the classroom, resulting in an intimidating atmosphere. Others might process information at a different speed and experience pressure when their peers immediately call out answers. While this list is not exhaustive, we strongly encourage you to provide students with an opportunity to anonymously share their reasons for hesitating to participate in class. This will shed light on additional barriers and obstacles they may face that are currently invisible to you.


Benefits of Non-Oral Participation in a Class


Our motivation for incorporating non-oral modes of individual student participation comes down to our commitment to building a classroom environment where “all learners feel welcomed, valued, and safe” (Sathy & Hogan, 2022, p. 10). In this context, non-oral participation allows a student to share their personal ideas, ask questions, or respond to prompts without requiring a vocalization of those thoughts. For example, non-oral participation could be writing, drawing, acting out, miming, modeling, or creating. Leveraging non-oral participation techniques in the classroom can benefit all your students, including those who seemingly thrive with traditional oral participation. Non-oral participation can accommodate diverse means of engagement and expression (CAST, 2018), promote critical thinking, and even enhance participation as students feel empowered to participate in a way comfortable to them (Burke, 2020; Tanner, 2013). Allowing students to participate through alternative modes of communication also encourages creativity and agency in expressing themselves, as supported by the Universal Design for Learning guidelines (CAST, 2018). Incorporating engagement that allows students to draw, write, graph, or find animated images (GIFs) online can reduce potential language barriers and promote understanding among diverse learners. Using non-oral participation in class can also increase students' quiet reflection time and provide you, the instructor, with documentation of the student’s thinking and learning.


For example, at a recent Lilly Conference, where we first presented this work, we leveraged the collaborative web platform Padlet to poll the room on why students may be uncomfortable or unwilling to participate orally in class. This could have easily been a prompt where we asked for volunteers to share their answers aloud, but by using Padlet, we had built-in reflection time for our attendees, and we then had documentation of their thinking in written language and images. We can now go back to the Padlet over six months later and see what the attendees were thinking about rather than relying on our memory of an oral conversation.


Practical Applications


Starting small with inclusive participation methods can make a big difference in your classroom. Take the well-known “think-pair-share” technique, for instance, where teachers present students with a prompt and allow them to think silently for a minute. Then, students pair up and engage in discussion with one another. Finally, a few students share their thoughts or ideas with the class. Each of these pieces can be slightly adapted to be more inclusive with non-oral methods of participation:

  1. Think: Instead of relying solely on oral prompts, provide written instructions, prompts, or other visual aids for students. This also serves as a reminder for students, so you are not repeatedly answering the dreaded “What are we supposed to be doing?” question.

  2. Pair: Encourage students to exchange written notes, use digital tools, or participate in online discussion boards rather than just chatting. They can also use graphic organizers, mind maps, or diagrams to represent their thoughts visually. These methods promote inclusivity and can create a record of their thought process for later review.

  3. Share: Allow students to convey their ideas through visual presentations, such as slideshows, posters, infographics, or other visual aids summarizing their thoughts. Offer the option for written summaries or reflections through written reports or digital submissions.


For a discipline-specific example, consider a calculus course that covers end behavior of functions. The graph of a function is projected onto the board in class, and students are asked to describe the end behavior of the function using the concept of limits. Traditionally, this might involve the instructor posing the question, “What is the end behavior of this function as x goes to negative infinity?” Then, students raise their hands to answer. However, leveraging non-oral participation could involve students finding two or three GIFs representing the end behavior to answer the posed question. Figure 1 below indicates examples of what students may find. (GIFs like these can be sourced from platforms like Their GIFs could then be submitted to a discussion board, shared with a neighbor, or published on a Padlet or Google Slide deck. If technology is not readily available, students could draw or sketch the end behavior on an index card that they then hold up in front of their chest. Either way, this minor modification allows for quiet thinking time, encourages creativity, and provides documentation of students’ thinking.


Figure 1. The left image (Dean, 2019) indicates pointing to the left, indicating negative y values. The right image (GIPHY, 2014) represents the notion of going to infinity. Combining the images represents negative infinity.

Our Reflection

Flexibility and patience are essential when introducing non-oral participation methods in your classrooms. Students may respond differently to non-oral methods, and we acknowledge that some students may require more guidance and practice to become comfortable with these methods. We encourage you to be open to feedback, making adjustments as needed to ensure inclusivity and engagement. Utilizing non-oral participation methods can feel very challenging at first, as it may go against how we have been taught or the established norm. However, it can be gratifying as you start to see students who were previously reluctant to engage now actively participating.


We were primarily focused on individual student participation, but one could envision extending this to team-based or project-based instruction by drawing on non-oral modalities (e.g., drawing, writing, graphing) to demonstrate understanding prior to engagement in application/problem-solving. For example, in Team-Based Learning (TBL), learners are held accountable for the information assigned prior to class through a Readiness Assessment Process (RAP) (Sweet & Michaelsen, 2023). Since the RAP includes both individual and team assessments, individual students could present their understanding through non-oral means and leverage this contribution to ensure the readiness of the team for the next phase, Application Exercises (AE) (Sweet & Michaelsen, 2023). When students work in groups to address real-world problems through project-based learning, non-oral communication can also support critical thinking and promote knowledge and skill acquisition needed for solutions to open-ended challenges (Kokotsaki et al., 2016). 


One note that we hope you take from this piece is that not every exercise has to be non-oral, nor does every part of a course need to be revised. Challenge yourself to begin with a manageable step of facilitating one non-oral student participation activity per week or unit to help ease yourself and your students into the process. Remember, starting small is a good thing! We hope this manuscript has inspired you to try something new and continue your journey towards an inclusive learning environment.


Discussion Questions

  1. What is one class activity (or component of an activity) that you could revise to leverage non-oral participation?

  2. What may be barriers to oral participation in your classroom or wider learning environment?

  3. How do you think your students would respond to a non-oral participation activity in your class?


Acknowledgment: Thank you to the Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation staff members for their support and guidance in the initial Lilly Conference presentation, and further support in writing of this manuscript. A special thank you to Dr. Shannon Stefl and Dr. Claire Dancz.




Burke, R. (2020). Widening participation and linguistic engagement in Australian higher education: Exploring academics' perceptions and practices. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 32(2), 201–213. 


CAST. (2018). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2. Author.




 Kokotsaki, D., Menzies, V., & Wiggins, A. (2016). Project-based learning: A review of the literature. Improving Schools, 19(3), 267–277.


Messbauer, S. (2013, April 13). Say what? Nonverbal modes of participation. Graduate Teaching Community.


Sathy, V., & Hogan, K. A. (2022). Inclusive teaching: Strategies for promoting equity in the college classroom. West Virginia University Press. 


Sweet, M., & Michaelsen, L. K. (Eds.). (2023). Team-based learning in the social sciences and humanities: Group work that works to generate critical thinking and engagement. Taylor & Francis.


Tanner, K. D. (2013). Structure matters: Twenty-one teaching strategies to promote student engagement and cultivate classroom equity. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 12(3), 322–331.

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