The Shyness Project

How Can a Teacher Get More Students to Participate?

On Monday in 6th period my teacher had us start off class by randomly playing a socializing game.  He had us write a funny question based on a word he said and then had us go to someone else and ask questions and swap cards.

I went and talked to some people I usually talk to (about 3 people) who sit around me, and then talked to about 6 others who I don’t talk to much and who sit further away.  Most people just kind of stayed in their group and asked their friends though, which made it harder to talk to some people who only seemed to socialize with their group.  He encouraged us to go outside our comfort zone though.

Afterward, he got serious and asked us how he could get more people to participate in class.  One guy said aloud that he felt that only the same 3 people answered on a regular basis.  He included himself in that as well as two others, which he pointed out.  The teacher said he didn’t expect him to take it there, but that was interesting.  He asked why that was.

One of the people pointed out said aloud that they’re either too shy or didn’t read. They also don’t want to embarrass themselves if they ask something stupid.  The teacher asked the other person who was pointed out why he answers so much and he said it was because he had nothing to lose, and doesn’t think he has much of a reputation.

I didn’t say anything aloud, but I thought that if maybe he had us raise our hand instead of allowing people to just talk out all the time it would be easier for the hesitant people in my class (myself included) to answer before one of those 3 just speak aloud their answer right away.  I noticed the day after that the person who said they’re either too shy or don’t want to embarrass themselves answered nearly every question he said right away by just speaking aloud, so I don’t see how there’s even a chance sometimes.  Other ideas could be giving us time to write out our answers and have more time to think about it.  He could also have us get with partners and discuss our answers in case people are afraid they have a stupid answer.  Or there could be nonverbal ways of participating, like writing out answers on white boards or something.

I felt kind of flushed like maybe his comment was directed at shy people like me, even though I have been participating much more than I ever have lately.  Then I woke up to reality and realized that if only 3 out of a class of 30 regularly participates, I must not be the only one shy and nervous about answering.  I think other people care about participating, even if they pretend like they don’t.


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18 thoughts on “How Can a Teacher Get More Students to Participate?

  1. I find it very interesting that your teacher is letting people call out and not having students raise their hands or be called on. When I was in school, teachers would purposefully call on students that didn’t have their hands raised, just to make sure everyone was understanding and participating. Also, when they have students raise their hands, they can make sure it’s not always the same people answering questions all the time.

    I wonder if approaching the teacher after class or writing him a note would be helpful. Let him know that you are interested in participating, but you feel like the students that call out don’t give you a chance to do that.

    Really, it kinda comes down to his control (or lack of control) over the classroom, but I wouldn’t tell him that. *wink*

    Interestingly enough, I was like the one student you mentioned – the one who had nothing to lose, so he answered questions all the time. Even though I was an introvert, I loved answering questions. I was often accused of being the teacher’s pet. Hey, if the teacher liked that I knew the answers, and that was the only way I was going to get anyone to like me, I was gonna do it. The teachers were nicer than the other students!

    • Yeah it used to be that way a while ago in my other years of school and in certain classrooms, but it seems like raising your hand is becoming more…unnecessary I guess. I think he and a lot of other teachers feel that it’s more casual and personal if people are just allowed to speak without waiting their turn or waiting to be called on. I just haven’t gotten used to that idea after years of being told to raise our hands and feel more comfortable with doing that though. You bring up a very good point in how raising your hand can allow a teacher to call on more people though.

      Yeah if it’s possible to talk to him about that privately he might benefit from knowing that.

      It’s good that you loved to answer questions and participated a lot in class, and I know that students can be judgmental and try to put that “teacher’s pet” label on people. Teachers are often times nicer than some of the other students and can be nice to talk to.

  2. oh man… When I read the title, my gut answer was to allow people to skip the typical rule of raising the hand and allowing them to blurt out. I mean, when you talk to friends in a social group, do you raise your hand and wait your turn? I am definitely the queen of interruptions. I think “blurting” gives a more “community” feel than a strictly business feel…

    But you’re right. There are some people who just talk without thinking and others who prefer to process the information first and tend to lose out on the opportunity. What about a list? Every day the teach goes the list ensuring equal participation…

    I definitely wouldn’t make this personal. He’s probably just getting tired of the same three squeaky wheels chattering…. And this is an indirect way of telling them to shut it! 🙂

    • Haha yeah that might work for some people, and it does have a more conversational feel without the hand raising I suppose.

      I think some students can just think out loud so that’s why they can respond immediately, but I like to think in my head first and then ask or answer. But it does result in missed opportunities when others are so quick to answer, it feels like a race as to who can speak the quickest sometimes. A list is a good idea too, it would certainly ensure that everyone gets a chance.

      Yeah it was just a really quick reaction and then I realized it was illogical. Haha, maybe he was implying that too, I hadn’t thought of that. 🙂

  3. Eric Sylvester on said:

    I’m an education major that’ll be teaching in a high school in *gulp* two years. Chances are, most of my students will look older than baby-faced me. Because of this, it is difficult to command respect in the traditional sense of the word. Now, I’ll never be 100% soft or look to make friends in my classrooms, but when you face the uphill battle of looking like an 11 year old trying to teach these kids, you gotta think outside the box. This is no different.

    On day one, you have to set the tone for the entire semester. You also have to make it a policy of “there is no such thing as a stupid question”. Now, every kid has heard this and most think it’s BS. Frankly, most teachers probably believe it’s BS as well. So how do you break that mold? Prove it to them. I’d lecture for a little bit, and then I would require my students to ask “stupid questions”. They have to be relevant, but only mildly. This a) gets everybody involved and eliminates the “3 out of 30” rule you’re currently facing. B) if every student knows that every other student is going to be asking “stupid questions”, there is no fear to ask your own “stupid question”, which could be a perfect way of masking a legitimate question, or at the very least getting a laugh and overcoming your shyness, and C) I’m a master improviser/BS’er, so I’d find a way to relate the “stupid question” back to the topic and show that you can learn something, disprove something, or at least confirm what you already knew just by asking your “stupid question”.

    Ice breaker, tone setter, and it gives an open forum to your classroom without losing control of the classroom and allowing answers to be shouted out.

    Granted, I literally just thought of this idea as I was reading your post, so it may/may not work. But there’s no such thing as a bad idea, just like there is no such thing as a stupid question.

    • Good luck! High school students can be tough if you let them, don’t let them be rude to you otherwise they’ll just keep doing it! I’ve seen it too much and the teachers are too nice and should just kick them out or something after enough times of being rude.

      That sounds really cool about your idea! I haven’t had a teacher do that before, but I think it’s a good way to start off your year with your students! Does the question have to be obviously stupid or can it be one that they want to ask anyway but aren’t sure if it’s a stupid question?

      Haha hey well at least you got something out of reading my post, might as well try it and see how it goes! 🙂

      • Eric Sylvester on said:

        Not necessarily blatantly stupid (although that definitely works to break the ice). If you don’t have a valid question to ask, then I’d be for a dumb, obvious question to help mask the legitimate questions others might ask. If you ask your question already knowing the answer, it’s no big deal. If you ask a question and DON’T know the answer, but can say it nonchalantly like you already do, you get your question answered without having to embarrass yourself.

        The biggest key would be for the teacher to treat every question VERY seriously, no matter how ridiculous. That way you get the point across that every question, no matter how stupid it may seem on the surface, can be a point of learning. You can always jump off from your blatantly obvious answer and explore a whole new idea. This will get the students to (hopefully) realize that every question is important, no matter how stupid it may seem at face value.

  4. And thank you all for your very thoughtful comments and insights, I appreciate it!

  5. Your self talk on this one was you recognized that out of 30 there were only 3, so it was not accurate to think he was directing it just @ you. This is a great skill to cultivate. our perception of how other people see us is SO powerful…people tend to respond to how we see ourselves.

    • Thanks Doug! 🙂 I’m becoming a lot more aware of the sneaky little messages that try to creep in my head now and am better at realizing how illogical they are. I can see how our perception of how we think other people see us can have a big impact on us.

  6. kindamixedup on said:

    I like it better when teachers don’t let people spontaneously answer questions out loud, exactly because if you’re a bit more on the shy side, then you don’t even get a chance to participate.
    And I don’t like it either when teachers point out people directly and then say it’s their way of teaching or whatever. Please. Some people don’t like to be pointed out and forced to talk.
    For some teachers, it’s like a game. “So who am I gonna pick today? If you look away, I am going to pick you!” And they actually laugh at it. Argh! -_-‘
    So as for me, I prefer raising hand and I think it’s noble for a teacher to try to make his students participate more. I think encouragements are enough. “Somebody else, please?” Or “Somebody who didn’t talk yet…?” That’s what my french teacher does and maybe that’s why I got more comfortable to raise hand and participate in her class.
    And by the way, thank you for inspiring me to raise hand in class. It was a success. 🙂

    • Yeah I agree, and it’s probably the reason why only a few people participate really regularly. When the same people are always blurting out, it makes it much harder for anyone else to get a say in before something else is said. Raising your hand is much slower than talking out, but I prefer it and I can see that many others do too.

      And I know what you mean about the pointing out directly thing too. I like it when the teachers pick the ones who obviously aren’t paying attention better than the whole look away or make eye contact game that can get you chosen sometimes. It’s hard when you don’t know the answer and you don’t want to be picked.

      I think those encouragements are good too, and it’s cool that your French teacher does that. And I’m truly honored that I was able to help inspire you to raise your hand in class!! It makes me really happy to hear that because I didn’t want this blog just to be about me (even though it’s my life and it may seem like that is all it’s about) and was hoping something good would come out of it for other people too. Thank you for letting me know that! 🙂 And thanks for commenting!

  7. There are some great ideas rolling around that young head of yours, Brittany! Great post.

  8. John on said:

    I’ve been in classes that require participation by grade. Specifically, 10% of your final grade is through your classroom participation. Many universities adopt this practice, however, it is difficult to monitor and prove. One way they can get around it is through peer-grading. When groups are asked to make a presentation, those of other groups are asked to critique their presentation. Along the same lines, during classroom participation, each student was asked to rate their fellow classmates on participation from 1 to 10, 1 being never participates and 10 being participates as often as possible. These peer-grades cannot be used to actually grade the students, but it can be used to back-up a teacher’s grade, or even prevent the wrong participation grade to be given.

    This may seem arbitrary and wrong to many, but when it comes to generating critical thinking in a classroom, simply making the student believe that they are getting graded for “classroom participation” garners more participation. I know this from first hand experience as a student.

    The 3 out of 30 rule may “rule” currently, but by adopting something as radical as a participation grade, even if your intention as a teacher is to give everyone every bit of that 10% toward their grade, simply improves the classroom participation because of the students’ desire to improve their grade. Of course, if a student simply does not participate, then their grade must reflect that (or you look like a fool to the rest of the class that has participated). And if their lack of participation is any sort of indication of their caliber of work, then you will probably find the rest of their work to be very similar.

    Just sayin’ y’all!

    • Hey John thank you for your thoughtful comment! I can definitely see how having participation as part of the grade encourages more people to participate. My psych class for example offered that if you participated by asking a question or making a comment or anything 80% of the time, then she would boost your grade if you had a borderline one. Other classes have marked people down for not participating. I think it’s nice when the teacher doesn’t just consider talking out loud in the front of the class to be participating, like counting participation as paying attention, doing the work, being respectful, etc. As you know from this post and blog, there are a variety of reasons why people don’t participate, and it’s not that they aren’t good students or that their work is of any less quality than anyone else’s, they just might find difficulty with raising their hand in class. That’s why I think some alternate methods of participating would be good, like talking out what you think with a partner or having things written out first. Raising hands helps me too personally so I have a chance next to all those who are eager to participate and can just yell out their response right away. Personally I wouldn’t enjoy the peer reviews and wouldn’t want to judge anyone else’s performance without knowing why they act the way that they do, but I could see how it would encourage participation. Thanks for stopping by!

  9. Christy on said:

    One thing I’ve read recently about participation is that teachers need to give people more time to gather their thoughts together. There was a study in which they found out that when teachers paused after a question for only three seconds, more students were able to gather their thoughts and choose to speak. Instead of being so eager to talk on, a teacher could let the really spontaneous people talk, and then give a little encouragement for other people to answer as well. Have you ever noticed how many people don’t talk at first in answer to a question until the speaker offers gentle encouragement?

    • Thanks for sharing about the study Christy, I think that’s really interesting! I can see how that would be true, those few seconds may not seem like much but I think it would be helpful personally, since I usually like to form my thoughts before I speak before the class. I think the encouragement does help too, for some reason it is often a lot harder for me to raise my hand and answer a question than for me to answer a question if I was called on or the teacher asks for other people’s ideas. Thanks for reading and for your comment! 🙂

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