In a discussion course, assign to your students some of the responsibility for increasing participation by all. For example, on the first day of class, you might tell students your goals for class participation (e.g., informed and lively discussions in which everyone participates) and ask them to come up with a list of guidelines that will help the class reach this goal. Typically, they will generate excellent guidelines such as “do not interrupt others when they are talking” and “critique the ideas; don’t criticize the person.” Post this list on the course Web site and hand it out in class. Students who feel invested from the beginning in making the discussions successful will be more likely to work together to increase participation.
Consider requiring students to lead discussions or to submit discussion questions before class. Provide guidance and assess student performance on these tasks (assigning a score, for example, that forms a part of the class participation grade.)
In discussion courses in which you are having trouble getting students to participate, consider asking students to submit anonymous comments on class participation as well as suggestions on how to get more people involved; often, they will let you know that there are problems with the classroom dynamics that you may not see yourself (such as that some students resent the “domination” of discussion by one or two others) or that the structure of the discussions has become too predictable or formulaic.
Use a variety of teaching methods, including lectures, discussions, and small-group work. If you are teaching a lecture course, set aside time during each lecture to ask and answer questions, to ask students to solve a problem, or to discuss an issue. Pause every 15-20 minutes for this purpose. When students learn to expect these opportunities for discussion or questioning, they will listen more actively to the lecture. If you lecture for 45 minutes before you pause for questions or discussion, your students will have been taking notes for so long that they may find it difficult to switch modes quickly. Furthermore, they may well have forgotten questions, comments, or unclear concepts from the earlier parts of class (see Teaching with Lectures).
If you are teaching a discussion course, integrate short lectures into the lesson plan in order to introduce concepts, clarify and order ideas, and help students make connections. Use small-group discussions, informal writing assignments, and online discussions before or at the start of class to prompt student thinking about the discussion topic. These strategies can be effective ways to provide reflective learners and shy students a means of developing ideas that they can then contribute to the class discussion. Commenting on the insights that quieter students contribute in small-group discussions and on informal writing assignments and online discussions can encourage them to speak up in the larger group; you might comment on a student’s written work, for example, “this analysis is insightful; the entire class would benefit from hearing your ideas more often” (see Teaching with Discussions).
Organize each class session to include opportunities throughout to ask and answer questions; prepare initial and follow-up questions ahead of time. Use questions to assess student learning, to signal to students which material is the most important, and to help students advance their knowledge and thinking. (For a discussion of strategies for formulating questions, see Asking Questions to Improve Learning). Encourage students to ask questions throughout the class (approximately every 15 minutes), not just at the end.
If grading student participation, plan to give students a preliminary participation grade, as well as a brief written evaluation of their performance. If you will grade class participation, give students preliminary grades as early as 3-4 weeks into the semester and at midterm so that they will know where they stand. Your written evaluation can be designed to encourage the quiet students to talk more often and the verbose students to hold their comments to give others a chance to participate).