When I have a class discussion, it seems to be dominated by a few students or else no one raises a hand. How can I encourage more students to participate?
—Brenda, Warren, Michigan
I suspect every teacher has had class “discussions” turn into seminars with a few students while the others merely watch. Class discussion has a place as a strategy: debriefing after a lab investigation, reviewing, summarizing a lesson, elaborating on content, and assessing what students understand about a topic. A well-crafted discussion involves student-to-student as well as teacher-to-student conversations. However, students have learned that if they don’t raise their hands, the teacher probably won’t call on them or that some students will raise their hands immediately and monopolize the teacher’s attention.
At first, students may rebel against changing these traditions, so explain the reasons for using new strategies. While students may certainly raise their hands, you reserve the right to call on others, too, because you’re interested in what everyone has to say on the topic. You want to encourage more in-depth thinking, get a variety of viewpoints, assess student learning informally, and create a classroom environment where everyone’s questions and contributions are valued.
To call on students randomly or equitably, some teachers use cards or craft sticks with students’ names on them. A chemistry teacher I know uses a random number generator to select students. It is certainly acceptable to call on students who raise their hands, too. Asking a student to be the class scribe and write on the board/interactive board/overhead during the discussion can be another form of participation.
For questions requiring short answers, some teachers ask students to hold up individual white boards or pieces of paper with their response. Signals such as thumbs-up/down/sideways or “clap once if you agree” can provide an opportunity for all students to respond, and this can also be a formative assessment technique. Electronic response systems are an excellent way to get all students participating. You’ll also have a record of the responses. But I’m assuming by “discussion” you mean more than a question-and-answer drill, so you may also want to look at the type of questions or discussion prompts you are using and the type of feedback and comments you provide.
Another effective way to encourage participation is to use wait time. After you ask a question or pose a topic, wait four or five seconds before calling on a student. Some students (including those for whom English is their second language) may need time to compose their thoughts. The first time I tried this, I was astounded at the additional hands raised during those few seconds! Waiting is hard for teachers to do, but the “dead air” is actually thinking time, and research has shown that the students’ responses are often at a higher level of complexity. After a student’s response, use more wait time. During these few seconds the student may elaborate on the response, or another student may contribute. Before you respond, call on other students to follow up: “Do you have anything to add?” or “Do you agree/disagree?” To acknowledge those who did raise their hands, you can say “I noticed your hand was up, too. What were you going to say?”
How should you respond if you call on someone involuntarily who answers incorrectly or with “I don’t know”? Ask a few probing questions for clarification (perhaps the student did not hear the question). Rephrasing the question with different vocabulary may work or smile and say “OK, I’ll come back to you later.” Be sure to do so.
Encourage students to interact with each other by asking questions, elaborating, or disagreeing. The classroom arrangement may contribute to this type of engagement. If students are sitting in rows with their backs to each other, it may be hard to engage them in a lively discussion. For large group discussions, consider arranging the seats in a circle so that students can see each other. If you sit in the circle with them, it sends the message that all voices are valued. Another strategy is Think-Pair-Share, in which students think individually, then discuss the topic with a partner, and summarize or share their thoughts with the class.
It may take a little time for you and the students to adapt to a different kind of class discussion, so give yourself time to try new strategies and model the type of conversations you expect from the students.
Here are some additional resources:
Using “Think-Time” and “Wait-Time” Skillfully in the Classroom