Student Engagement

3 Strategies to Increase Student Participation

Many teachers report lower levels of participation in the past couple of years. These verbal and nonverbal strategies may get students to contribute in class.

February 8, 2024
Courtney Hale / iStock

I recently met a teacher friend for coffee. As we chatted, she shared how exhausted she was. “The kids aren’t talking anymore,” she said. “It doesn’t matter how hard I try or what we’re doing. They just sit there, looking at me. I have to work so much harder because my ‘on’ setting doesn’t get a break.”

Teachers in a variety of districts and school settings have shared similar sentiments with me about student engagement. In addition to the more commonly expressed worry about working with kids whose behavior is dysregulated, a lot of teachers (particularly those in secondary spaces) are speaking to a newer, eerie silence in their classrooms. Their experiences resonate for me as well. As an instructional specialist, I have the regular opportunity to observe instruction, and I too have witnessed a scarcity of student voice as teachers talk at the front of the room or students work silently on laptops for extended periods of time. 

We may not yet know the root cause, but many students seem more inclined to exhibit passive learning behavior since returning to in-person school after the pandemic. To help kids become more comfortable making contributions to class again, the three strategies below elevate participation without requiring a significant shift in lesson planning.

1. Making Time to Move Around

Students are often more willing to talk when they get up and move a little bit, stimulating a brain-to-body connection. One way to facilitate movement and student discourse at the same time is to establish learning partners at the beginning of a school year or semester for every kid in the classroom. 

When a question or topic is on the table for discussion, the teacher invites students to get up, find their learning partner, and have a conversation to process information. One classic version of this strategy is known as “round the clock” learning partners, in which students have 12 partners: one partner for each position on the face of a clock. If the teacher says, “Talk to your three o’clock partner,” kids find that person to discuss a question or topic.

This strategy can also be content-specific with learning partnerships for items like shapes (geometry), significant historical figures (social studies), or authors (English). With this method, teachers also have the “warm calling” option of pre-alerting students that once partners have had time to talk to one another, they might be asked to share a highlight from their discussion with the whole class.

2. Responding via Post-it

The most vocally active kids in the room are not necessarily the most engaged. Although equitable practices for random calling help to elicit a wider range of perspectives in the room, another key tool that elevates the ideas of less vocal learners through all four language domains (reading, writing, speaking, and listening) is a Post-it note. As one teacher observed to me recently, students respond more enthusiastically to Post-its than to writing on regular pieces of paper. Perhaps kids find something magical about the way they stick to any surface.  

For example, if students write a question or comment on their Post-its in response to a topic, teachers can encourage the sharing of ideas in a variety of ways. A classic think-pair-share with the Post-its (either in seats or, more ideally, by getting up and finding a learning partner) is one option. Another is to ask everyone to put the Post-Iis on the walls and allow kids to walk around and respond to one another, even with something as simple as a checkmark or a heart to indicate agreement.

As a more complex option, the teacher could collect all the Post-its and highlight some of the more pervasive questions or errors, particularly by celebrating any misconceptions as a valuable pathway to learning. After class, it is also helpful to look through the Post-its as a way to assess where student understanding lies, similar to how we collect exit tickets.

3. Having Students Reflect on their Participation

When students have so many classroom experiences from which to draw in such a condensed period of time, they are often less aware of their own level of participation from class to class. To stimulate their thinking around the importance of voice, asking students to capture their participation over a specific period of time can be helpful.

For example, teachers might give students a self-monitoring sheet and ask that everyone tally their contributions to class (both verbal and nonverbal), and then use this data to help guide students toward setting specific goals for how they want to be included in the class moving forward. Here are some reflective questions to help spur a metacognitive thinking process:

  1. How often do I make vocal or nonvocal contributions to this class? 
  2. Regardless of how much I contribute, what factors might explain my level of participation?
  3. What would I like to change about the amount I contribute to class, and what specific goals can I set to make that happen?

When we help students process their thinking around these questions, making a connection to action is important. Suppose a student shares that they rarely raise their hand or share thoughts voluntarily. That gives the teacher an opening to have a follow-up conversation about the reasons that the student has been silent and to discuss what tangible goals might be helpful, such as committing to one additional contribution per day for a week.

Some students may not share their ideas because they do not feel that the class is a safe space in which to do so. For any kids who are reluctant to think deeply about their role in the classroom, it is useful to schedule a time to follow up with them privately. That way, we can get to the root of their discomfort, which may be connected to class content, specific peer dynamics, or, in some cases, the teacher.

While television shows and movies may have idealistic images of quiet classrooms, the reality is that a classroom full of engaged students talking about course content is what teachers really want to see. Otherwise, it becomes far more challenging for students to both internally and externally process information and make learning meaningful. Strategies like the ones above can be integrated into existing instructional plans to create a higher level of student participation, leading to a more even distribution of voices in the classroom.

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