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Student Engagement

How to Engage More Students in Classroom Discussions

Teachers can create a more student-centered classroom by ensuring that everyone has a chance to contribute. 

August 6, 2021
FangXiaNuo / iStock

We all want each of our students to feel heard and valued in our classrooms, with everyone engaged in class discussions. Some years the dynamic is just magically there. Others we must work harder to support the reluctant voices and subdue the dominating personalities in order to create equitable classroom conversations.

In the research, there are two dimensions of classroom talk: One ranges from interactive to noninteractive and the other from authoritative to dialogic. They combine to create four types of classroom conversations. With an equitable classroom, we are engaging in interactive-dialogic talk, which means the whole class is thinking together, making their thinking visible, constructing knowledge and understanding, and accessing prior knowledge.

This is significantly different from noninteractive-authoritative, in which the teacher is lecturing information from one point of view, or noninteractive-dialogic, which is still only the teacher talking but sharing different perspectives. Finally, with interactive-authoritative, many students are talking, but it’s evident that there is only one correct answer or perspective.

Striving for interactive-dialogic talk has many benefits for the learning process. Students engaging in socialization of learning understand concepts on a higher level, since they are mentally involved in the active learning process. Interactive-dialogic talk engages students in externalizing, which requires them to access prior knowledge, synthesize their understanding, articulate concisely and effectively, and elaborate by assimilating new knowledge into existing mental schema.

Additionally, when students contribute to the collective classroom experience, it motivates and engages them by creating a sense of belonging as well as the satisfaction of being appreciated for their thoughts and ideas. They are a valuable member of the classroom learning experience.

Here are some strategies to create a culture in which all voices and perspectives are represented to maximize higher-level processing from all students.

4 Tips to Include More Voices in the Classroom

1. Anti-proximity. One of the most well-known strategies for classroom management is proximity. We all are aware of the power of moving closer to a student to help them be more attentive, participatory, or engaged, or even better behaved.

Sometimes to create equity it’s better to move away from the student. In typical conversations, we tend to move closer or lean in when talking with a person. In the classroom, we see this when a student responds or asks a question, and the teacher moves closer to that student. In doing so, the teacher has unintentionally given a signal that this conversation is between this specific student and teacher only. Other students are quick to disengage in the conversation.

Instead, when a student responds, walk to the far side of the room. Now, the conversation includes all of the classmates in between the teacher and student who is currently speaking. The likelihood that others will actively listen and respond increases as they are physically included in the space of the conversation.

2. Body language. As with anti-proximity, the natural instinct is to change our body language to show that we’re listening. We angle our shoulders forward and turn them to face the person speaking or even make eye contact. In the classroom, when a teacher does this, it signals to the other students that this is a personal conversation, and so they disengage.

Teachers can instead think about their body language when they respond to students, positioning their shoulders to open up and lift back toward the whole class rather than the one student. Keeping our head up as if we are looking at the far side of the room and having our eyes scan the entire room will also help signal to students that all are expected to stay in the conversation.

3. Anonymous input. Having a voice, sharing perspectives, and externalizing thinking does not always have to be in the traditional sense of a whole group classroom conversation with different students talking individually to the whole group. This can be intimidating for some students and also may not allow space for thinking for those who are introverted and tend to process deeply individually.

Allow students to participate anonymously. They will feel their ideas represented without any anxiety of being recognized. They personally will know that they were heard and contributed to the collective learning experience.

There are many apps that permit students to submit answers anonymously, but one of my favorites is Nearpod, which allows a variety of different types of questions, including open-ended, polls, multiple choice, and drawing, where students respond to a prompt with an actual drawing. The open-ended option allows teachers to select a single response and share with the whole class by pushing it to their devices, so that it’s the only response they can see. Even if done anonymously, the student knows they are contributing in a valuable manner.

4. Thinking routines. Thinking routines like think-pair-share, the jigsaw discussion method, and turn and talk present students with different scales of conversations, allowing them to externalize their ideas with a small group before sharing with the class at large. This leads to collaborative efforts to construct knowledge.

One of particular value is the fishbowl triad discussion strategy. Students work in groups of three to prepare for the discussion. This relieves the tension of individual anxiety. During the actual discussion, there’s an inner circle with only one representative from each triad who engages in talk, while students in the outer circle serve as active listeners. You can allow for members of the triad to exchange notes to the inner circle vocal representative or tap in by switching spots. This allows students to decide when they want to be a more active voice or prefer to be a supporting role in the conversation. Regardless, they still are involved in some manner.

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  • 6-8 Middle School
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