Can Class Participation Be Taught?

Can Class Participation Be Taught?


Class participation has bothered me since I graded a set of midterm exams from my first solo-taught course. As I sat down to read through those signature blue books, I felt anxious about how my students would perform. Had they learned anything? Did the lectures thus far sink in at all? To gauge the potential quality of the exams, I scanned through some of the responses of my “better” students and felt fairly confident grading the rest.

At the end of the stack, however, I came across an exam that has stuck with me. The student in question had me worried all semester. Not only did this student refuse to participate in class discussions but she frequently looked irritated whenever I asked the class a question that wasn’t rhetorical.

giphy I had to read her exam three times. This student had absorbed every piece of information from the class—from lectures to readings, and even some of the more salient points brought up in discussion sections. Her exam demonstrated a sophisticated engagement with the class and I was stunned. I gave her an A and scribbled something in the margins about wanting to hear her participate more in class discussion since she clearly understood the material. Fast forward to the end of the semester when this student’s reticence caused her grade to drop from a solid A to an A-, and I was flummoxed.

After that experience, I started to wonder: is participation really that important if a student is clearly capable of learning the material without speaking in class? Recently, blogger and journalist Melissa Pandika recommended a serious reconsideration of the role of participation in classrooms. As she explains, “participation points can place quiet students at an unfair disadvantage” and create discussions “that echo the same viewpoints” of only the most talkative students. She argues that, the emphasis on class discussion “typically boils down to getting students to talk more and teachers to lecture less.”

However, is it fair to say that the pedagogical reason for encouraging dialogue comes down to simply wanting to “lecture less”? As William and Mary professor of history, Andrew Fisher, explains, “public speaking and verbal communication are skills students should develop in college.” Moreover, he argues that class participation, “encourages students to become more responsible for their own education” in meaningful and productive ways. While recognizing the importance of participation, Professor Fisher agrees with Pandika that introverted students are at a distinct disadvantage to their more extroverted peers. For that reason, Fisher’s class participation grades involve in-class discussions in which students prepare by composing questions on Blackboard and responding to each other, composing longer written assignments, as well as working in small groups during class before opening the discussion to the larger group. All three of these components become part of the student’s overall participation grade. Fisher’s approach to class participation highlights the pedagogical importance of discussion in a history classroom, not in order to “lecture less” but rather to teach fundamental communication skills.

Reading Pandika’s blog and discussing it with Professor Fisher reminded me of my introverted, but nonetheless engaged and intelligent student. I began to wonder if I had failed her somehow? If class participation serves a genuinely important purpose in liberal arts classrooms—as I believe it does—then why was it not a skill set that I taught my class with the same level of engagement as writing or testing? I would never, for example, inform a student that they performed poorly on a writing assignment, tell them to improve, but provide no framework or guidance to help them improve. In a sense, however, that is exactly what I did to my introverted student when I told her that she was not participating enough.

To this end, I have  decided to make class participation a more important part of my teaching rather than less. I agree with Professor Fisher, college needs to be where students learn to engage in public dialogue with their peers—in fact, I view the ability to synthesize information and express a learned opinion about it as essential as learning to write more effectively. Building on the kinds of online prep work used by Fisher, in the future my students will also receive a handout that outlines what I would consider a useful contribution to class discussion. Currently, this rubric consists of a “fill-in-the-blank” kind of response to class discussion that will, hopefully, encourage introverted students to feel more confident in their responses. Students will be encouraged to think of a response to class discussion consisting of three component parts. The first will be indicating who they are responding to, which also provides them a way to return the discussion to an earlier point that may have passed while they gathered the courage to raise their hand. This part of the response could be as simple as: “I’d like to respond to _____’s comment.”

The second section of the rubric consists of the student citing the material they are referencing in their comment. This middle component is essential, I believe, for talkative students as well. Hopefully by making students cite a source for their comments, I can avoid receiving regurgitated versions of the same comment from students over the course of the semester. It will, I think, encourage students to think about participation as a dialogue with the course material as much as a dialogue with the class. And finally, the third component of the response involves the student expressing their opinion to add to the conversation. In the end, students could have a clear structure for a comment that would sound something like: “I’d like to respond to _________’s comment. I read ­_________, and it made me think about________________.” My goal through this method, moreover, is to teach participation rather than to simply encourage it.

Pandika’s blog sparked extremely interesting conversations about class participation that I hope the wider Junto-reading community will take up. Surely there are better ways to approach discussion and as someone just starting to teach at the college level, I look forward to reading about the varied approaches used by professors and graduate students in the classroom.

13 responses

  1. I’ve been teaching for 30 years but I never thought to ask this question the way you did and answer it so effectively. Thank you

  2. I’ve been teaching for 30 years but I never thought to consider this question the way you did or answer it so effectively. Incredibly useful. Sharing with all my colleagues. Thank you.

    • Thank you for the kind words. This really came out of a place of feeling inadequate in my teaching and hoping to spark a larger conversation about the dreaded participation grade. I’m glad you found something of use here.

  3. Here’s a question for the writer and anyone else: Does anyone have participation as an expected outcome of the course? Can you give me some advice on how I can take participation, a behavior, and mold it into something that is transparently gradable and assessable?

    • That is a really interesting question and I, too, am eager to hear others’ responses. I can give an answer for what I’ve done so far without any guarantee that it’s a good method. Throughout the week, I keep track of how often people speak and rate their responses (through the depth of their engagement in the class material) on a scale of one to ten.

    • What an excellent question (for an excellent post – I hope this generates more discussion, Casey!). I, for one, am going to go back to my syllabi and see whether I put it in objectives and outcomes.

  4. As a grad student at Berkeley in the early 1970s, I took a brief course for TAs that focused on promoting class discussion — including methods of encouraging reticent students to participate.

  5. I use group activities, discussion, and presentation to promote participation. Each group then reports to the class what they learned. This is done so as to have each student presenting at some point. I find this works effectively in breaking down barriers and generating student interaction. Of course I also teach small classes ranging from 6 to 24 students.

  6. Ran into same participation issue in business team meetings. Extrovert’s dominated discussions. Solution was to provide discussion topics 2-3 days prior so Introverts could ruminate in advance. Discussions became more vibrant and productive.

  7. I taught for more than30 years in a European university structure traditionally based ONLY on lecture courses. Final exams were obligatorially oral. My course in US History usually had about 100 students. In the ’80s-’90s we began to have students from other European countries participating in a European Community exchange program. My own experience, at Radcliffe/Harvard had been of lecture courses with a seminar hour.
    My solution was to set up 10 ‘themes’ and require students to sign up for one of them, with a limit of ten names per group. This obliged individuals to reach out and ‘join’, almost inevitably finding themselves with mixed levels of competence and, if foreign, different methods of study and expression. Each group was to present their theme before the whole class and might choose to give single papers, several joint papers or a unified presentation ( with whatever material they liked ). This series of group efforts took up the final third of the course hours. Each group received a mark as a group ( oral and also written with some detail in the comment) as well as answering + discussing with classmates. The group mark could be presented at the oral examination and would count 1/3 towards the final mark. The benefits were really large – not least the heightened awareness of the different mental stances of students who had studied in Holland, Germany, France or Eastern Europe as compared to Spain ( or Italy, where my university was).This approach is a lot of work, as you have to help each group – and some individuals – in seeking bibliography or with relational problems. But the results include a final sense of join endeavor and broadened public consciousness. Over the years, some apparantly unlikely students were ‘charged up’ by the experience and went on to become academics….

  8. I occasionally start class, in upper division classes of smaller numbers, to state their favorite quotation from the text and explain why. It can be a quotation they hate, they love, they don’t understand etc.
    I have also asked them to think of “an image” that came to them during the reading
    Giving them a minute or two to think about it before responding.

    As this is based heavily on the reading and that every student knows that they have, to say something combined with the fact they have a little while to prepare, I sometimes announce that this will happen via email before the class starts, usually allows both extroverts and introverts to make a contribution.

    These discussion ideas came after I read the following two books, amongst others:

    Brookfield and Preskill, Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms

    Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

  9. Great article. Getting students to engage with the material and talk in class, imho, is as important as their ability to passively listen and absorb the “talk and chalk.” I have used fishbowl discussions, final word protocol, and “hot seat” amongst other techniques to get students talking and participating. Also, giving students the chance to think about the questions I pose to the class (“wait time”) and making this explicit is another important piece — before asking a question I tell the class I have a question I want them to think about for a while and that I will be calling on several random students (by pulling index cards with student names on them) to respond before I say anything ensures that I won’t ask a question and then answer it myself two seconds later…

    A resource I have found that might be useful — the Cult of Pedagogy has a “Big List of Classroom Discussion Strategies” that I have been working my way through:


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