Encouraging Participation in the Classroom

“What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” an advertising slogan for Las Vegas tourism, has been adopted by a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College as a motto for one of his courses, as a way of creating a “safe space” for students who might be worried about their comments in class getting taken out of context, or showing up on social media.

Knowing that “what happens in Government 137B, stays in Government 137B” couldn’t be the sole norm of classroom discussion, there are others that Jon Shields asks his students to adopt: “Some (like being respectful and listening to others attentively) are not objectionable. But others arguably are. For example, I also encourage my students to assume that their peers are making arguments in good faith,” he writes in The New York Times.

Professor Shields thinks that worries about being labeled a bigot are what inhibit students from speaking their minds. That may be true some of the time, but my sense of my students is that they’re more concerned about being unkind to each other. They’re also sometimes nervous about sharing their own opinions on difficult issues out loud, regardless of their content, because they’re just not used to doing so. They’re still learning what they think, how to express their views, and how to argue well (including how to make distinctions that might help them express their views more carefully). And like most people, they have to overcome the hesitation captured in the saying, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”

So what do you do to encourage your students to speak in the classroom, especially on challenging or controversial issues?

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2 years ago

I know it’s obvious, but: don’t play favorites.

If a student thinks they’re not one of the Chosen, they aren’t going to feel comfortable speaking up.

Joe Shin
2 years ago

My system over the last few couple of years for small classes is to (i) make participation (rather than attendance) a non trivial part of a student’s grade, (ii) to be systematic and transparent about my expectations and record keeping, and (iii) to create more opportunities for student participation.

At the start of the term, I give students a handout which outlines a quota for how many times they should participate on average for each class period given their grade goals. It also explains the different kinds of contributions they can make (e.g., connecting an idea to something we’ve discussed before, raising a substantive critique, reporting back what was discussed in a small group discussion). I keep a virtual chat going which is just another means by which they may share (and I occasionally will highlight some of these to the class). I also come up with a few discussion prompts for each meeting that students will talk about in small groups before we discuss it as a class. I try to be strategic about these prompts because they can really juice up the participation and engagement, if carefully selected. Of course, good facilitation is important and I do a lot of weaving together different remarks. Finally, I keep daily logs of each student’s participation which is a bit of a drag but imo worth the pay off (especially since it helps counteract implicit biases). This is by no means a perfect system. However, over the last five semesters, I’m happy to report that regular in-class participation is now the rule rather than the exception in my courses. Class meetings are also far more enjoyable for me (and based on evals) for most of my students.

I suspect part of what prevents students from volunteering their ideas is that they often have unrealistic expectations for what the quality of their comments must be if they are to share them. Perhaps something about my approach helps students realize that you don’t need groundbreaking ideas to share them and to be taken seriously.

Keli "Animal" Birchfield
2 years ago

I teach Moral Foundations at St. Joe’s U. Each week, we focus on an historical figure from the Western canon. And at the end of the week we have a “roundtable discussion.” I provide an article on a current event to supplement the historical texts. Students must pull a quote from each reading (the supplementary current event article and the historical text) to substantiate their critical thoughts on either the current event or the historical figure (or both!). Of course, I cushion the environment with invitational warmth to encourage students to share their thoughts. Everyone is expected to be respectful of each other. And the students are very sweet, anyway. As long as students follow the directions, they receive full credit and an, “Alright, very good!” from me. No fights have ever broken out. Today, we covered Hobbes and the debate around “my body, my choice” during Covid. We had a wide variety of perspectives and everyone shared their views with both passion and grace. At the beginning of the semester, students typically share how nerve wracking this assignment can be. And some students have come to me afterwards with worries about whether their views could have hurt someone’s feelings. However, after the first couple of rounds – once they see that nothing bad results from them sharing their critical thoughts – I’ve noticed they become excited for the discussions, and they are eager to raise their hands by the end of the semester (whereas in the beginning, I have to call on them). It’s very rewarding to watch them grow and become more comfortable voicing critical thoughts. I like to think they’re discovering ways of presenting their thoughts in an objective, yet compassionate way, that takes into consideration others’ feelings, as well as discovering the benefits of voicing their critical thoughts – deep down, everyone wants to be heard!

Louis F. Cooper
2 years ago

Prof. Shields, according to his linked profile, is the author of a book called The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right. He teaches at Claremont McKenna College, a place that, at least by reputation, has a number of professors with conservative and/or Straussian perspectives.

I haven’t read his NYT piece yet, but these considerations might help explain why Prof. Shields is particularly interested in ensuring that his students feel free to speak their minds without fear of being thought bigoted, etc. I think all professors should encourage the expression of a wide range of views in their classrooms, but I can see why a professor with conservative political views might be especially interested in trying to make sure that students whose politics are on the rightward side of the spectrum don’t feel inhibited about speaking.

Daniel Weltman
2 years ago

One of the things I do: near the beginning of each class meeting (often at the very beginning) have students talk with the person next to them about the reading. After they’ve talked for a while, go around the class and have each person say something (if they want to). This is a good way to 1) get everyone to participate at least once and 2) get people talking early so that they are more comfortable participating for the rest of the class meeting.

This has nothing in particular to do with challenging or controversial issues, about which I think the best advice has to be rather specific to the context: it depends on where you’re teaching, what your students are like, what those issues are, etc.

2 years ago

My thought as someone who used to participate very little in class:

To encourage introverted/shy/unconfident students to participate, don’t just say “You’ll be punished (in grading) if you don’t speak up”. That can force people to speak sometimes, yes, but it can also make them hate it. Even worse, it can drive introverted/shy/unconfident students out of philosophy.

Instead, try to really care about what those students have to say, when they do speak up. Compared to confident, outspoken and eloquent students, introverted/shy/unconfident students tend to be taken less seriously, and their comments in class taken less seriously. That natually discourages them from participating. But if you listen carefully and interpret them charitably, they will feel much more comfortable speaking up.

Incidentally, I just want to recommend this excellent post by Eric Schwitzgebel, which seems relevant to me: https://schwitzsplinters.blogspot.com/2022/03/the-parable-of-overconfident-student.html

2 years ago

Also, just to add on my previous comment: after I came to the US for grad school, I realized that students in the US are generally *much* more confident and outspoken than students in my home country. Part of it is just cultural. So, at least when it comes to students with different cultural backgrounds: sure, encourage them to participate more. But don’t just assume that they are unwilling to contribute (I’ve even heard people labelling them as freeriders!). And don’t punish them for being from a more reserved culture.

Whitney Schwab
Whitney Schwab
2 years ago

I’ve sometimes found it useful, especially in smaller classes, to give students time to write down thoughts in response to a question and then ask to share. Especially when done early in the semester I think it helps.

Athos Rache
2 years ago

Showing the other side of the problem usually helps the inteligente ones.

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