Dear Sarah,

How can a student better participate in class?

Seeking Student Participation

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Dear Seeking Student Participation,

The question of participation is always a layered one for me because it sends me asking more questions: Is the material relevant enough for her? Does he have enough background knowledge? Are there personalities in the classroom that may be stifling her? Does he need more time to think? As these questions start filtering through the file folder in my mind I keep of each student, I’m drawn to a few touchstones about student participation I continue to rely on.

There has to be built in thinking time. When students aren’t participating, especially in discussion settings, I often wonder about time. Most students want to have an answer before they participate in class and if they aren’t it may be because they’re still formulating their thinking. These are the moments when I pause for a quick write, a pair-share, or offer them some time to sort out their ideas.

Participation can be as varied as the opportunities we offer. Participation doesn’t have to look “one way.” Some students are verbal, others are visual, still others are kinesthetic. When student participation seems to be dropping off, I always ask myself if I’m giving learners enough ways to show they are learning. If the desks have been in a circle, maybe they go to pods. If we’ve been discussing a lot, maybe we switch to writing. If we’ve been working with a lot of abstract ideas, maybe it’s time for a few very relevant concrete ones. I’ve learned that participation is more about my ability to observe and building on their unique contributions, than it is about monitoring my own preconceived notions of how a lesson would go.

We have to look for patterns before jumping to conclusions. I’m sure, like you, we have students who will never speak in front of the whole class, but are fantastic leaders in small groups. Other students will write fervently outside of class, but appear passive in class. Still others may make fantastic contributions, but only when asked, and rarely volunteering. Students have taught me time and again that they are most engaged when they are constructing their own learning. So when I wonder about participation, I have to look at patterns of their entire learning process, not just a single setting, and help them grow from there.

And sometimes the hardest questions I ask are the ones I point at myself: Do they have enough background information? Are they involved enough in determining their own learning? Have I given them a purpose for learning today? Have I overlooked a facet of our classroom culture that would prevent them from participating?

When all else fails, the best question is the most obvious one. I find an inconspicuous moment, sit down beside the student who seems disengaged and simply ask: “What can I do to help you learn?” Then we begin.

And so can you!

Teach openly,

Together with Teacher2Teacher



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