Avoiding the Sounds of Silence: How to Encourage Student Participation
It’s a teacher’s nightmare. You ask a question and stare out at a room of blank faces, staring back at you. Remember that scene in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” where the teacher asks the question and ends with “Anyone? Anyone?” before answering it himself? We know you’d like to avoid that scenario with your own students, so what can you do to encourage active participation in the classroom?
Why Your Students Aren’t Participating
Students may avoid participating for a variety of reasons:
The content could be too difficult for them. If your students are struggling to keep up with content, chances are, they’re not going to be able to answer your questions even if they wanted to.
They could have a language barrier. For English learners who are new to the language, just keeping up with everything going on in the classroom can be a struggle. Adding the expectation to participate can be unrealistic until your students are up to speed with their English skills.
Your students may be shy. Public speaking is routinely ranked as the number one fear among adults, so just imagine how it can affect students. Some students, even if they know the answer, will not feel comfortable raising their hand or working out a math problem on the board in front of the class.
How To Foster Student Participation in Classroom Activities
If the content difficulty is the problem, find ways to differentiate instruction based on your students’ needs. When students feel more comfortable with the material, they will naturally ask and answer questions more easily.
If language barriers are the issue, collaborate with your ELL teacher to find ways to encourage English learners in your classroom. Look for materials that feature students’ interests and get them excited about the topic being covered.
For shy students, find ways to encourage participation with less emphasis on public speaking. Participation doesn’t have to mean just raising your hand. Emphasize active listening for your students and pay attention to clues that your students are engaged (head nods, smiles, eye contact, etc.) even if they aren’t speaking up. Check out these tips from Teacher Habits, including recognizing and rewarding participation.
Overall, make sure your classroom is set up to get students to participate. If you have a small class, consider arranging the desks in a circle or horseshoe to encourage discussion. Or, set up desks in groups of three or four and incorporate small group participation, which can be especially beneficial for shy students.
Be sure students know your expectations for participation—how and when you’d like their participation—and set ground rules for participation, which can be as simple as showing respect for their classmates or staying on topic in class discussions.
And be sure to look outside the box (or in this case, inside the box) for ways to encourage participation. Create a suggestion box for students to submit questions on classroom content or issues they’d like to discuss with the class. This form of anonymous participation can serve as a stepping stone toward active classroom participation.