Listening and Responding
Use verbal and non-verbal cues to encourage participation. Do not rely on the same volunteers to answer every question. Respond to frequent volunteers in a way that indicates that you appreciate their responses, but want to hear from others as well. Move to a part of the room where quiet students are sitting; smile at and make eye contact with these students to encourage them to speak up. By the same token, when frequent volunteers speak, look around the room rather than only at them to encourage others to respond (see below).
Reduce students’ anxieties by creating an atmosphere in which they feel comfortable “thinking out-loud,” taking intellectual risks, asking questions, and admitting when they do not know something; one of the best ways to do this is to model these behaviors yourself.
Give students time to think before they respond to your questions. Do not be afraid of silence. Give students 5-10 seconds to think and formulate a response. If 10-15 seconds pass without anyone volunteering an answer and the students are giving you puzzled looks, rephrase your question. Do not give in to the temptation to answer your own questions, which will condition students to hesitate before answering to see if you will supply “the answer.” Patience is key; do not be afraid of silence. The longer you wait for students to respond, the more thoughtful and complex those responses are likely to be.
Often, there is at least one student in every class who will quickly raise her or his hand to answer nearly every question. If you consistently call on this student, those who require more time to formulate answers will simply learn to wait for this student to answer. (See Asking Questions to Improve Learning.)
Listen fully to your students’ questions and answers; avoid interrupting. Resist the urge to interrupt when you think you know what the student is going to say or ask. Often, well-meaning and enthusiastic instructors make incorrect assumptions and leave their students’ actual questions unanswered or misrepresent what the students had planned to say.
Provide specific, encouraging, varied responses. Point out what is helpful or interesting about student contributions. Pick up on comments that were made but not discussed. Do not use the same, standard praise to respond to every comment. When students hear “good point” again and again, they start to lose motivation. Ask follow-up questions to prompt students to clarify, refine, and support their ideas. When a student gives an incorrect or ill-conceived answer, respond in way that challenges the student to think more deeply or to reconsider the evidence. The best way to shut down participation, and learning, is to embarrass a student.
Repeat student responses to summarize or clarify ideas. Use this strategy when a student’s comments are vague or “all over the map,” but do not over-use it, leading students to rely on you to “translate” or validate their ideas.
Redirect comments and questions to other students. Encourage students to respond to one another, rather than merely to you. When a student is speaking, look around the room, not just at the student who is speaking; making eye contact with other students lets them know that you expect them to be listening and formulating responses. Provide students with a model of civil discourse by demonstrating respect for, and interest in, the views of others. Learn to limit your own comments. Particularly when facilitating a discussion, hold back from responding to every comment; otherwise, students will learn to wait for you to respond rather than formulating their own responses.
Place the emphasis on student ideas. Encourage students to share their ideas and use those ideas (with attribution) whenever you can. Referring back to a comment made by a student in an earlier class demonstrates that you have thought about and appreciated what your students have to say.
Active student participation does not happen naturally in university courses; it must be carefully planned and encouraged. Set aside time throughout the semester to assess student participation in your course and to develop strategies for improvement; administer midterm student evaluations to help you with this process. Consider asking a colleague to observe your class; often, outside observers can discern patterns that hinder participation but that may not be apparent to participants. Take notes during and after a semester so that you have a record of what went well and what you would like to change the next time you teach the course in order to increase student participation.