Increasing a Student’s Classroom Participation
By Dr. Kenneth Shore
Class participation is an important part of student learning. By speaking up in class, students learn to express their ideas in a way that others understand. And when they ask questions, they are learning how to obtain information to enhance their understanding of a topic. Class participation is also a valuable learning tool for teachers. Through your students’ questions, you learn what your students do not understand and can adjust your instruction accordingly.
But just as speaking in front of a group does not come easily to many adults, speaking up in class is a struggle for many students. This may manifest itself in the classroom in a variety of ways, from not volunteering answers to questions to not asking for help to not speaking up in small-group activities to not talking at all.
You will have greater success in spurring a student to speak up if you can figure out why he is reluctant to participate. Whatever the reason for his reticence, however, your role is not to force him to speak; doing so will only make him more likely to clam up than open up. Rather, your role is to provide a supportive, encouraging climate that helps him feel more comfortable, more confident and less fearful speaking up.
What You Can Do
- Create a climate where students are encouraged to ask questions. Make it clear to your students that you want them to ask questions. Tell them that their questions help you by indicating where you may not have been clear. Emphasize that there is no such thing as a dumb question and make sure not to allow students to ridicule a classmate’s questions.
- Take the student’s questions and comments seriously. His reluctance to ask a question or volunteer an answer may be due to lack of confidence. Help him gain the courage to participate by showing respect for his contributions and giving thoughtful answers to his questions. Listen attentively while he is talking and do not interrupt him. Try to find something positive to say about his comments such as “That’s an interesting point. I never thought about it that way” or “That’s a really creative idea.”
- Orchestrate his speaking experiences to ensure success. Consider the following strategies:
- Ask him questions that you are confident he can answer.
- Let him know before class that you will be calling on him for a specific question so that he can prepare an answer. If you arrange to call on him, do it early to lessen his anxiety.
- When he does respond, reinforce his comments with positive statements and an encouraging smile.
- If you ask a question and he blanks out or says nothing, you might restate the question, perhaps in yes or no form, or lead him towards the right answer by providing a clue. Or you might let him off the hook by giving the answer while saying something like “That was a tough one” and then moving on.
- Be patient in waiting for a response to a question. The student may need more time than normal to organize his ideas and formulate a response. As a result, he may be slow in answering a question. If so, give him extra time by waiting more than you usually do for an answer. If other students are clamoring to answer, ask for their patience as well.
- Monitor class participation. This will help you determine who is, and is not, participating and whether a particular student is improving. A simple way to keep track of student participation is to keep a seating chart on your desk and place checks next to the names of those who have contributed.
- Give the student practice in communication skills by talking with him privately. The idea is to help him feel more comfortable talking with one person so that in time he will feel more confident speaking up in class. Find a few minutes every so often to talk with him about his favorite activities and interests. Or you might speak with him when he is doing an art project or writing assignment. Ask questions so he can explain what he is doing or writing about, but make sure they are not threatening.
- Give the student responsibilities that require communication. You may need to nudge him to do these activities but don’t hesitate if you are confident he can do them successfully. For example, you might encourage him to be a class messenger; a tutor for another student; the leader of a small group if he is familiar with or skilled in the topic; or a teacher assistant. Make sure to praise his performance even if he struggles with the task.
- Observe the student for any evidence of a speech or language problem. It may be that he is reluctant to speak up in class because he has a speech defect or difficulty putting his thoughts into words. While articulation problems are usually readily evident to a teacher, difficulties in language usage may be more difficult to identify. If your observations suggest a communication problem, bring this to the attention of your school’s speech-language specialist, who may want to do an evaluation.