George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Do you have students who rarely raise their hand when you ask a question? When I think back about kids in my classroom who didn't participate at first, I remember Jared and Maya (whose names I changed). Jared was polite, listened to his classmates, and did his homework. But when I asked questions or set up class discussions, Jared remained silent. Maya was really creative and an avid reader. She also didn't participate, frequently had her head down in class, and was reluctant to start work. Some of our students might sit quietly through each lesson or be visibly disengaged. Maybe they don't understand the lesson, are embarrassed, or hesitantly wait for another peer to share. Jared and Maya certainly aren't unique.

I often visit classrooms where I see teachers employ lots of Q+A. Asking questions and calling on raised hands is one way to check for understanding. But Q+A doesn't access 100% of our kids -- especially not kids like Jared or Maya.

How can we get our shiest students, or even our student with her head down in the back of our class, participating? While cold calling, randomizers or pulling a Popsicle stick will ensure students are equally called upon, some students find that approach frightening or annoying. Below are strategies you can try in your class tomorrow that will motivate your Jareds and Mayas to participate.

1. Three Seconds

According to researcher Mary Budd Rowe, the average teacher waits 1.5 seconds between asking a question and calling on a student. By increasing the wait time to a mere three seconds, the following occurs:

  • Accuracy increases
  • "I don’t know" decreases
  • Student responses get longer
  • Achievement on tests increases
  • More students participate

I literally count at least three Mississippis in my head after asking each question.

2. Hand Out Questions in Advance

Pre-plan a few questions that you want to ask (Saphier and Haley, 1993), write them on slips, and hand each student one question at the beginning of class. Once it’s time to ask the question, reach out first to the kids who had the question, then to the rest of the class. Try dividing the class into the groups whose members had the same question so that they have a chance to chat first before sharing out.

3. Anonymous Questioning

Companies like Socrative and Infuse Learning have designed software to check for understanding that can be accessed via smartphone, tablet or laptop. You can incorporate all types of questions from multiple-choice to short answers, and responses can be anonymously represented via graph. You can then make informed decisions with rapid, real-time data. Kids love it because they get to use technology, feel safe and get immediate feedback.

4. Choice Questions

It's important to incorporate questions that have more than one right answer, but broad, open-ended questions can be debilitating. Try incorporating some choices or either/or questions.

  • Instead of asking, "How are you going to solve today's equation?", try "Would you rather use the simplify or guess-and-check method for today's equation?"
  • Instead of asking, "Which character exemplifies what it means to be a friend?", try "Would Charlotte or Wilbur make a better friend? Why?"

5. Snowball to Avalanche

In Reading Without Limits, I share a fun kinaesthetic strategy:

Have a really debatable question? Start the discussion. When a student answers, they become a "snowflake." As students agree with the original student, they move their bodies closer to that student to "build on that snowflake,"’ making a snowball. If you choose a great question, there should be several snowballs throughout the room that eventually, if one side is more convincing, turn into an avalanche. Kids will love showing allegiance to their classmates' ideas. And they can definitely change their minds.

As kids show their allegiance, call on different kids to share out why they are taking that particular stand.

6. Estimation Line-Ups

Ask kids a question that has a numerical response based on a sliding scale (Kagan, 1994). Place a number line around your classroom walls. Students stand under their number/answer preparing to share why. Fold the line in half so the students who most strongly disagreed with each other now chat before sharing out to the whole class.

  • "Our scientific hypothesis is that a plant will grow more near the window than in the closet. How many more inches do you think the plant near the window will grow compared to the one in the closet?"
  • "On a scale of 1-5, 5 being 'strongly agree,' 1 being 'strongly disagree,' should Jack and the boys take Piggy's glasses?"

Traditional Q+A didn't help me access all of my learners. The above strategies increased participation in my classroom, giving me more opportunity to check and support understanding. Getting our Mayas and Jareds to develop the confidence and comfort to participate makes a classroom a true learning community that values all, not just some students' thoughts.

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Ruth's picture
English Training Fellow at IPGKDRI, Malaysia

Loved your post - good ideas!

I'm not teaching a regular everyday class any more - I lead workshops and give demo lessons - so I don't usually know much about my students, and they vary from little kids to middle-aged. I often use what I call 'icons' - everyone has a little card with a picture (something related to what we are studying) and when their picture is selected it is their turn to answer. The question is asked first, so everyone is preparing an answer, and there are always several people with the same icon. They get very excited and motivated and word is out - students come expecting something to happen.

Zana G's picture

I am currently in my senior year of college, in the process of graduating with a degree in Education-Special Education. I found these tips to be very helpful as I am student teaching right now. So I am having the chance to experiment with my students as what will get them involved or boost their motivation to be participating in our classes. As I know, each class year is different, but modifications can always be made. The biggest class size I have is about 7, so I found your tip 1 and 2 to be helpful and something I could use with my students. They do need extra time to think about their answers , as well as, having that awareness that they will be asked questions during this class and know what to expect is something I believe all teachers should do.

Virginia's picture

This blog post was extremely helpful to me! I am a student teacher in a elementary resource room. I often find that my students have trouble engaging due to attention difficulties and sometimes the fear of being "wrong." What I have found with them is that giving the students small consistent rewards during whole-class instruction really motivates them to participate during discussions and whole-class activities. For example, I have a jar filled with small snacks (cereal, jellybeans, etc.). When a student participates I give them one. This reinforces their participation and motivates other students to participate as well. As the lesson progresses, I taper off giving the rewards, and soon all the students are engaged in discussion without having to reinforce their participation with tangible rewards. Plus, it gives them a little snack which boosts their energy levels!

MRM's picture

These are great ideas. And I would like to add one that I used when I was student teaching which I found helpful in a math class.

I passed out "white boards" (heavy white chardboard inside sheet protectors so they were erasable) and erasable markers and told the class that I didn't want any "bench sitters," I wanted them all "in the game"--i.e., everyone needed to come up with an answer. I noticed that this technique helped get the students who often weren't paying close attention to really listen up and helped me to deal with misconceptions quickly.

Gloria Becker, EdD's picture
Gloria Becker, EdD
Program Director, Educational Technology

I find the think-pair-share strategy to be helpful with shy kids. I put the question out. They have a moment to think to themselves. They pair up with one or two other students to create an answer to the question. Each pair/group reports out to the class. I use old-fashioned sand timers to keep the kids on task (1 minute or 3 minutes). Sometimes recruiting the shy or unfocused student to be the timer helps.

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