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One of the biggest fears new instructors have is that no one is going to speak up in class. And, in fact, many teachers are frustrated by the fact that students often do not respond to their questions and seem unprepared for section. Here are some tips on how to get students involved in discussion.

Early Discussion

Try to get everyone talking in the first couple of section meetings. Once students “break the ice,” they’ll be more likely to share.

Make Your Goals and Expectations Clear

While remaining flexible to the unpredictable turns that classroom conversations can take, you should come to section with a lesson plan that articulates your main goals and the activities or questions you have planned to meet those goals. Some GSIs like to provide their students with the goals, or the “take-home message,” at the beginning of class, in a handout or on the board. This will make section feel more focused and productive. Students participate more when they have a sense of what to expect. Also, prioritize the goals you set for a class session and be realistic. Planning only two or three goals and creating activities that promote discussion, debate, and deep learning is more effective than tackling many goals in a superficial way.

Avoid Programmed and Yes-or-No Questions

To encourage discussion, ask broad questions — “how” or “why” questions that require the students to think through a process, evaluate information, predict outcomes, form opinions, etc. Avoid “programmed” questions, in which you answer the question yourself before students have a chance to respond (e.g., “Why doesn’t the moon have an atmosphere? It’s because it has weak gravity, right?”). Questions with a simple “Yes” or “No” answer can also cut off discussion. For more on asking good questions, see “Asking Questions” (Davis 2009, 118–26).

Rephrase the Question

If no one responds to your question, try rephrasing it. If you still get no response, don’t be afraid to ask the students why they didn’t respond. Was it vague? Unclear? Did they do the reading? (And yes, it is okay to ask your students if they did the reading.)

Encourage Student Questions

Remind your students that there are no “stupid” questions — if they have a question, chances are that someone else in the class has that question, too. Never assume that something that seems easy to you will be easy to your students. “What questions do you have?” usually gets a better response than “Do you have any questions?”

Ask Them to Respond to Another Student’s Comment

Involve more students by asking questions that agree or disagree with a comment: “How do the rest of you feel about that?” “Does anyone who hasn’t spoken care to comment?” “Is there anyone else who agrees or disagrees?” Discussions run best when the students are responding to each other. Try to keep your talking to a minimum and encourage students to respond to each other’s comments and to look at each other. Think of yourself as a discussion guide, not leader.

Written Responses or Free-Writes

Consider asking students to write a response to a question you pose. Then you can choose to call on a couple of students to read their response. This will give everyone time to prepare something. This is a great opportunity to get those students not participating involved. Call on someone who does not speak up much or who may seem disengaged.

Group Assignments

Instructors can devise assignments to facilitate more group involvement. Organizing students into small groups and giving them explicit instructions will get more students involved. You can have the groups report their findings back to the rest of the class. Once students have formulated and discussed their ideas in a small group, they may feel more comfortable sharing with the rest of the class. (For more group work suggestions, see Facilitating Group Work and Active Learning Techniques.)

Assign Roles to Students

Instructors can ask two or three students to lead part of a discussion one week. Be certain to give students guidelines and a format, as well as some moral support. (If you have a large section you may need to make the discussion leader groups larger in order to ensure that all students have the opportunity to present a question or issue for discussion.)

You can also create other roles for students such as a summarizer or a recorder to recap the key points made in the day’s section. You might also establish an observer whose role is to comment on the discussion. Be sure that students who lead discussions understand that they must involve the other students and avoid giving a presentation.

Bring Students’ Outside Comments into Class

If a student makes a good comment in office hours or on a paper, check with the person to see if you can bring it up in class. Then in your next meeting say, “Anna, you were saying something about that in office hours yesterday; would you mind repeating it for the class?” You might consider using this technique with your students who do not speak up much to help them feel more comfortable speaking in front of the class. Be sure not to always single out the same person.

Nonverbal Support

Keep eye contact with students while they are talking. Nod along so that they know you are listening. If they feel as though you’re interested in what they have to say, they may volunteer more often. If a student who is rarely involved contributes to the discussion, give the person a smile or a nod to let them know that what they have to say is important.

Assign Alternative Tasks

Remember, just because some students are not speaking doesn’t mean they are not involved. To someone who rarely speaks up before the class assign a small, specific task that will further class discussion. For example: “Kyle, could you find out for next week when the first NAACP chapter was opened in San Francisco?”

Limit the Contributions of Students who Dominate

Make sure to wait after you ask a question to give all students an opportunity to think about your question. Don’t just call on the first hand that goes up. Provide six to ten seconds of “wait time” before calling on someone. Though this may seem long and drawn out to you, keep in mind that students and teachers have different timing needs, and most students need time to think before they can respond.

You can also have students write down a response to your question before you ask for oral contributions. This gives everyone time to think. You can then choose a couple of people to respond who don’t speak up much.

Consider calling on students who don’t raise their hand. Let students know at the beginning of the semester that you will be doing this. Some students know the answer but are afraid to raise their hand.

Working in small groups is also a good way to distribute turns at talk, but you may need to take steps to prevent one or two students from dominating the group discussion. One way to do this (as discussed above) is to assign roles to students in the groups, e.g., recorder, summarizer, time keeper, etc. Assign a dominant student a specific role that limits participation, such as summarizer.

If the problem continues, you should speak to the student outside of class. Be certain to let the student know how much you value his or her participation. If the student’s comments are good, let the student know, but point out that not all students are getting the opportunity to participate. Normally you will see a remarkable difference in the very next section meeting if you do this. If not, speak to the student again.

Setting guidelines for discussion early in the semester that stipulate that no one person should dominate the discussion and that all should have the opportunity to participate is an excellent way to nip this type of behavior in the bud.

Tactfully Correct Wrong Answers

While it is crucial that students distinguish between correct and incorrect answers, instructor disapproval or a put-down will discourage people from sharing again. If a response is off track, try to coach the student toward the right answer or approach. Provide hints or suggestions. And say something positive about the aspects of the response that are insightful, original, or creative. Try things like “Good — now let’s take it a step further”; “Let's go back a step — tell me more about xyz”; “Keep thinking about it.”

Pre-Discussion Assignments

One of the primary reasons that students do not speak up in section is that they have not done the reading and are therefore not prepared. The best way to get students involved is to ask them to be responsible for doing something with the material before coming to class.

For example, have your students write responses to questions you give them in advance. Asking students to post their responses and read those of their colleagues on bSpace before coming to class is a great way to get them to come prepared to section. Online discussions can facilitate in-class discussion. (See Using Instructional Technology.) You can also have students keep a reading “journal” (one page of free-form response) that they need to hand in or post electronically. Alternatively, select specific passages in a text that are central to the text’s argument, and ask students to come prepared to work with those passages. You can also ask students to identify the paragraph or section of the reading that confused them the most or the one they found most useful in understanding the overall message of the reading. Or you can have students fill out a worksheet before coming to class.

All of these small assignments will encourage broader participation in class. Giving assignments ahead of time requires that you keep at least a week ahead on the readings, and that you develop a system of grading pre-discussion assignments (usually by a check/check plus/check minus system).

Don’t be Afraid to Admit You Don’t Know Something

You are not responsible for knowing everything! Far from undermining your authority, admission of ignorance about something shows that you are not defensive about your knowledge. It also imparts the important lesson that part of wisdom is knowing what you don’t know. Use the knowledge gap as a learning opportunity. If the problem is one that can be speculated about, ask students to consider how one might arrive at an answer. Tell the students you will look up the information (and be sure to do so). Alternatively, for accessible facts, ask a student to look up the information after class and report back on line or in the next session.

If a question leads too far off topic, you can suggest that the student speak with you in office hours or via email about it

Move Around the Classroom or Lab

Sitting behind a table for the whole class can lower energy — both yours and the students’. It also gives the students sitting next to you more of your attention. You will find students regularly sitting far away from you either to avoid participation or to divert attention from their lack of preparation. Try varying where you stand from class to class, or move around the room during class — get up to write on the board, to work with students in smaller groups, or to show interest in a quieter student’s contribution.

Create a Safe Space

It is important to establish a safe space in the classroom so that students feel comfortable expressing their viewpoints and ideas. Critique ideas, not people. Respond immediately to offensive comments. Let students know that you will not tolerate stereotyping, homophobia, racism, sexism, etc. Students should know that they can contact you outside of class if something in section makes them uncomfortable or is upsetting. Don’t ever dismiss students’ concerns or feelings.

Be Aware of Who You are Calling On

Research studies show that many teachers respond more favorably to male students than to female students. Be sensitive to this and be certain that you’re communicating equally with male and female students. Call on them equally, make eye contact with them all, and support them all. More on this topic appears in the GSI Professional Standards and Ethics in Teaching Online Course, Module 1 (CalNet authorization required).

Engage Your Students

One way to get students engaged is to activate their daily lives or interests. This fosters intrinsic motivation, as does giving them an intriguing problem to solve using course material.

Not every student becomes intrinsically motivated in every class; having participation in section count in their course grade creates an extrinsic incentive to show engagement.

Evaluating Participation

Having section participation count in the course grade acknowledges the value of student engagement during section. If participation will be graded (frequently it counts for 10 to 20 percent of a student’s course grade), you need to explicitly establish what counts as effective participation. Students are less likely to become disengaged or discouraged if instructors create realistic expectations for participation and convey their expectations explicitly.

Your faculty member may have criteria, or you can generate your own, or you can define participation in dialogue with the students. Consider not only quantity of talk but quality of engagement. Once you have established criteria, you need to keep detailed records of students’ participation in each section meeting.

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