Explore potential strategies.
Student may not know what kind of participation is appropriate.
The student in question may come from an educational background (defined by culture, discipline, or both) in which classroom discussions were not the norm or where a different set of conversational conventions applied. If so, the student may have trouble navigating the subtle, unwritten rules of turn taking in your class. For example, some students may have learned a participation style in high school that is not appropriate in a college environment (e.g., offering opinions and personal anecdotes rather than well-formulated arguments and evidence). Others come from cultures in which an assertive speaking style is valued and interruptions are considered normal and inoffensive. In these situations, the student simply does not know what is expected of him; thus the strategies focus on teaching students how to participate appropriately for the context.
Explain to students at the beginning of the semester (in class and on your syllabus) how you expect them to participate: Should they raise their hands or just speak up? What should they think through (e.g., evidence, implications) before contributing? Clarify the kinds of turn-taking you’d like to see, e.g., "If you’ve already spoken, wait just a minute to give someone else a turn." When cultural differences in conversational style are clearly at work, acknowledge these differences non-judgmentally, while clearly articulating your expectations for your classroom. Establishing discussion ground rules (pdf) and/or using a simple participation rubric can help make your expectations explicit.
Students may have had little exposure to the type of discussion you expect in your course. In addition to stating your expectations, model the behavior you want students to engage in, e.g., building on the contributions of others ("let me add to something John just said...") and modeling respectful disagreement ("I’d like to offer an alternative explanation..."). Point out what you’re doing, and maybe even provide students with language they can use to build on one another’s comments, express disagreement, etc. You might also invite a colleague or graduate student to class to model a challenging and vigorous, yet also civil and productive, exchange of ideas. Focus your students’ attention on the rhetorical strategies you are modeling by giving them questions to consider while watching the exchange, e.g., What are some ways that we express disagreement? How do we reference one another’s perspectives while articulating and refining our own? Modeling can provide students who are unused to academic discussions with an opportunity to think about and adjust to your expectations.
If students feel rushed, they may say the first thing that comes to mind, rather than taking the time to reflect on the material and formulate reasoned perspectives. Thus, slowing down – and avoiding the temptation to race through too much material – can help create a more productive atmosphere for high-quality participation. One particularly good way to encourage meaningful participation is to pose a meaty question, give students a minute or two to think and write, then cold call. This allows students to organize their thoughts and craft a response. It also creates space for quieter students to contribute, while providing you with an opportunity to see what the more talkative students can do with time to think through their comments!
Point out particularly meaningful or productive contributions to class discussion when you see them, e.g., "Do you see how Omar built on Monica’s comment, but presented his own interpretation? That’s the kind of participation that shows me that you’re listening to one another but thinking for yourself." You can also provide a summative comment at the end of a session. e.g.: "Today’s discussion was excellent because you disagreed passionately, yet challenged one another respectfully, enlisting evidence, not just emotion." Pointing out, in real time, what you value in class discussion helps students see the difference between talking for its own sake and thoughtful, analytical participation.
When a student offers a comment or question that is poorly reasoned or badly articulated, politely ask him to clarify, provide evidence, or explain the relevance of the comment in relation to the larger discussion, for example: "Terrence, I’m not sure I understand how that relates to this topic. Can you clarify?" or "Victoria, that’s a strong opinion. What evidence can you find in the readings to back it up?" Insisting that students communicate clearly, think about relevance, and provide evidence to support their opinions helps them develop critical thinking and oral communication skills and also to understand better what meaningful participation entails.
If you grade students on class participation, make sure to distinguish high-quality participation from high-quantity participation. To do so, it’s useful to use a simple class participation rubric that clearly describes the features of high-quality participation, as you see them. Then give students a mid-semester participation score using the rubric. This kind of feedback can help them evaluate their own contributions to discussion in time to adjust their approach if necessary.
Some instructors use physical objects to guide conversational turn taking and discourage any one person from dominating the discussion. One technique is to give students a small pile of poker chips. Every time a student speaks, he has to throw in a chip, with the understanding that when his chips are gone, he’s done talking for the session. This encourages students to think before they speak and use their turns judiciously. Other instructors use an object such as a stick or a ball, which a student must be holding in order to speak. Still others use a timer to limit the amount of time any one student can hold the floor. These sorts of techniques are generally only appropriate if over-participation is a significant problem.
If, after some explanation, gentle redirection, and modeling, the student continues to monopolize discussion, pull him aside after class to talk. Thank him for contributing to discussion so regularly, while firmly asking him to make room for others to contribute. Provide some questions the student can ask himself before speaking up, e.g., “What evidence do I have for this opinion? How can I best articulate it? What is the single most important point I want to make?” This process of self-inquiry can slow the student down (thus opening the floor for others) while also signaling him to think more deeply before speaking.
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