Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Why don’t students participate in class?

U.S. faculty member, CMU program overseas

Most of my students come from educational backgrounds where classroom discussion isn’t emphasized. But it’s critical in my field to have strong communication skills. Since class discussions can help students build these skills, I make class participation worth 20% of the course grade. Even so, getting some of my students to participate can be a struggle. Last semester, I had some extremely bright students, some almost as technically sophisticated as my Masters and Ph.D. students back in the U.S. I knew they had valuable perspectives to share, but it was nearly impossible to draw them out in class. I would tell them: “Speak up! You’re too smart not to let others in class hear what you have to say.” But they simply wouldn’t.

So, I tried something new: I started requiring all my students to give frequent, short presentations: a quick summary and analysis of a reading, an explanation of a homework problem, a short proposal for a project. The transformation was amazing! Students who had previously been silent blossomed before my eyes. With a formal invitation to speak, though, they had plenty to say. I realized that most of them weren’t shy, as I’d assumed; they simply didn’t know how to enter into the discussion or didn’t want to be impertinent by speaking up unasked. I found, moreover, that after students had made a formal presentation one or two times, their reluctance to participate informally broke down. Soon almost everyone in the class was contributing to discussion.

Other strategies

  • Don’t assume that students who are quiet in class are less intelligent, less prepared, or have less to say than more talkative students. Also, don’t assume that they are shy. Students who are otherwise confident and gregarious may keep quiet in class for cultural reasons.
  • Call on students rather than waiting for them to volunteer. This gives students license to speak, whereas students might otherwise stay quiet out of deference to the instructor or because they can’t figure out a way to join the conversation. If you pose a substantive or challenging question, give students a few minutes to jot down their thoughts in writing and then call on them.
  • If you are worried about embarrassing students who don’t know the answer, give students the option of writing down why they can’t answer the question (e.g., What information are they missing? What don’t they understand?) in lieu of an answer. This can illuminate areas of confusion.
  • Use small group exercises to encourage quieter students to speak up. Always provide a clear, concrete task assignment (identify three possible solutions to this engineering problem) and ask groups (some or all) to report back. This helps groups stay on task and holds them accountable.
  • Design the class so that there are opportunities for individual or group presentation and require that all students play a role in presenting. Include a Q&A component to the presentation, so that students have to answer questions beyond the prepared slides or script.
  • Use a formal way to measure and evaluate participation (e.g. a rubric), and make sure you reward the less talkative students when they do participate.

For help brainstorming or adapting strategies to your own teaching context, contact the Eberly Center in Pittsburgh, the Eberly Center in Qatar, or the Intercultural Communication Center in Pittsburgh.