Student Engagement

Protocols That Get All Students Talking in Class Discussions

These intentional response strategies create entry points for students who may feel reticent to share in class discussions.

December 1, 2023
Martine Severin / iStock

“The person doing the talking is the person doing the learning.” I heard this saying many times, but it finally stuck with me one day as I looked over my students’ math performance data and noticed that all of my students with low mastery had something in common: They rarely participated in class discussions. 

Meanwhile, many students with high levels of math mastery were those whose hands were frequently raised. Was it possible that not joining class discussions could contribute to low levels of mastery? 

Ever since this aha moment, I’ve shifted my teaching practice to emphasize intentional response protocols that ensure all students contribute to classroom discussions, and my students’ mastery has shifted with it.

The Impact of Intentional Response Protocols

When my classroom depended on hand-raising, I found that discussions were biased toward students who knew that their answers were correct. This meant missed opportunities for the class to engage with interesting mistakes. 

There is benefit in hearing from a wide range of student voices, and intentional response protocols—frameworks for intentional sharing—ensure that every student has a pathway to participating in class discussions. 

These protocols don’t have to completely eliminate hand-raising from the classroom, but if they become routines, they normalize the participation of all students and shift the dynamic of who is doing the talking and, in turn, the learning.

Getting Started

One of the biggest barriers to student participation in my math class is concern over getting an answer wrong. Before launching new routines for intentional response in my classroom, I consider how to make my students feel comfortable taking risks by normalizing mistakes as part of the learning process. 

This means breaking down preconceived ideas about who is a “math person” as well as what types of answers are worth sharing. At the beginning of the school year, I give students sentence stems for agreeing and disagreeing (e.g., “I disagree with your idea because…”), offering students a positive way to engage with errors in the classroom. 

It’s important to be attentive to student responses when errors are discussed and to notice and address whether students use these sentence frames. One strategy that went a long way in shifting my classroom culture was consistently praising mistakes and specifically naming the ways in which they help everyone learn. 

This could sound like “I’m so glad that you gave that answer, because that is a common confusion. Now we can all look out for this type of mistake!” The specific narration about the learning process not only validates taking an academic risk but also names the direct benefit to others. 

Differentiating the Protocols

In addition to classroom culture, I work to make intentional responses accessible for all students in my classroom, particularly students with learning differences or anxiety. 

One strategy that is particularly helpful for students who need more processing time is to give students independent work time followed by a partner turn-and-talk before calling on students. This provides an opportunity for them to conference with a peer and potentially ask questions. 

During that time, I circulate to give quick prompts or checks for understanding to students who benefit from more support. When it is time to call on students, I preplan some “break it down” questions that can quickly assist a student in the moment if they are stuck. 

Finally, I’m always aware of students who have 504 plans that specify “no cold calling” or students who check in with me to share that anxiety is a barrier. For these students, I utilize “warm calling” by checking in with the student before calling on them to make sure they are comfortable sharing their response.

Enhancing Engagement

Three techniques have proven most impactful in increasing student engagement and mastery in my class: randomized calling, strategic warm calling, and popcorn out. 

In randomized calling, I use a random picker wheel or draw names to choose student responders. This protocol eliminates teacher bias in choosing which students to call on. Choosing students randomly ensures that diverse voices are heard, and students experience a sense of fairness within the classroom. Additionally, a random selection process increases variation in the types of solutions or mistakes that are shared. 

It is, however, important for a protocol to match the academic task at hand. Following a complex group work task, I found that it made sense to use a different protocol—strategic warm calling—to sequence student responses in a way that elicited learning. Strategic warm calling is when the teacher selects student responses based on how they reveal important ideas in the learning and gives the students notice before calling on them.

You might warm-call students in a predetermined order or infuse joy by adding an element of spontaneity: “Choose the tallest group member to share,” for example. While debriefing a series of quick review problems, I may choose a table group or row in my classroom and call on students to “popcorn out” the responses. This protocol involves calling on students in quick succession to give single-word or short-phrase answers to problems that they have already completed. It is particularly effective for debriefing the steps of a procedure that students are already familiar with.

By planning which protocol best matches the task in the lesson, I’m able to balance representation of student voices with the pedagogical needs of the task.

Embracing Change

Changing my teaching practice from relying on hand-raising to focusing on intentional response protocols did not happen instantaneously and required practice and patience. When I first made this shift, I focused exclusively on strategic warm calling for several years before working up to randomized calling. 

The first time I used the random name picker, I was nervous about how my class would respond. I was surprised to find that they thought it was really fun. Now, I regularly have students who offer to spin the name picker wheel and even see an occasional student smile when the wheel calls on them. It made me realize that my own bias was one of the biggest barriers I had to overcome in shifting my practice.

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  • Student Engagement
  • Student Voice
  • Teaching Strategies
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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