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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MRM's picture

Also, one of the techniques I was lucky enough to experience while I was student teaching was the "fishbowl." This discussion format is wonderful for upper elementary and older and is appropriate for extended discussion questions.

You arrange the desks so that there are 4-5 facing each other in a small group in the center of the room with all others in a circle around the outside. Students are chosen to go into the "fishbowl" in the middle, and discuss an open-ended question or topic. Sometimes one of the students is chosen to be discussion facilitator; but often students just use body-language cues about when to speak. Only students in the center are allowed to speak; everyone else in the room is quiet and listening and/or taking notes.

The teacher is not part of the discussion and only speaks when asking the intial question or starting a new thread or when intervening if students say something off-topic or inappropriate. The students are really discussing between themselves. (Frequently the students had to get used to addressing each other at first and not the teacher; but soon they got into deep worthwhile conversations.)

When I experienced this, the students all took turns being in the center over the course of multiple days as they discussed a class novel; and when the teacher determined that the students in the center had exhausted everything they wanted to say, she went around the room to the people seated around the edge to see what, if anything the rest of the students had to add (and the students in the center had to stay silent); but I have also come across descriptions whereby students who want to say something go into the fishbowl and tap the shoulder of someone who has already contributed something meaningful to the conversation.

The following YouTube video is a pretty good example from middle school:

Joe Payne's picture
Joe Payne
Middle School Special Education Teacher

As a special education teacher, this article addresses one of my biggest pet peeves in the regular or collaborative classroom. So often my students are more than capable of getting the correct the correct answer, but just take a little more processing time. So often if the students are not prepared to answer immediately, they are skipped over or reprimanded by other teachers for not being prepared. These strategies are a great way to combat this issues, and have my students gain some confidence in the regular classroom. A couple of those were new to me and I will certainly share with my colleagues.

Ronda Sturgill's picture
Ronda Sturgill
Adult Educator

I found your ideas to engage students very practical and easy to implement. They are very similar to the practices I use to engage my adult learners. I particular like the advantages you listed when we wait just a few extra seconds for our learners to answer questions. As a learner, it often takes me a few seconds to gather my thoughts and to prepare an answer. I find it frustrating when the teacher jumps in and answers the question before I have a chance to share mine. I also like the idea you mentioned about giving your students choice questions. Adults like to make choices when it comes to their learning. Giving them a choice allows them to have some control over their learning, which makes it more significant to them.

Kendra's picture
Third Grade Teacher From Missouri

Being a first year teacher I found these ideas very helpful. I would like to add a couple more to the list. I teach a writing class and students love to share their work with each other. In order to do this we use talking sticks. I put them in groups of 6-8 depending on how much time I have. Each student gets two talking sticks (popsicle sticks). They use one stick to read their story and one stick to comment on someone else's writing in the group. The students can only talk when they lay a stick in the center of the circle. No more than one person can comment on the story. This way everyone has a chance to read their story and everyone gets a positive comment from their peers. This has helped my shy students.
Another thing I do is give each student a set of 4 cards. They have one for each A, B, C, and D. I then put questions on my Smartboard and they have to hold up the letter of the correct answer. This makes everyone participate and I am able to see who is struggling in what area.

Katie Dean's picture
Katie Dean
6th grade English teacher

Thanks for this post; as a relatively new teacher, this is really helpful. I've used some of these strategies, like the three second wait. I also find it helpful to repeat the question slowly, giving them another chance to absorb it if they missed it the first time around. Other times I'll ask the question, call on a student, and then repeat the question after I've called on them. It gives them some time to calm down after being called on, and to articulate a better answer. I like the idea of using prepared questions; I haven't used it before, but I can see how it would be a valuable learning tool for students, but also a valuable teaching tool. Depending on how far in advance you give the question and what kind of preparation you want, the student who prepares the question can provide instruction for the rest of the class through their response.

LAteacher175's picture
6th grade language arts teacher

I found these tips to be helpful. I really like to use pair share in my room. I also have conditioned myself to use the wait time. For my special education students, I really like frontloading and giving them the questions ahead of time. Thanks for the great refresher!

LauraHooper23's picture
Elementary teacher from Atlanta, GA

Wow! What great suggestions! When I read the avg teacher waits 1.5 seconds, I mentally went through in my mind how many seconds I wait and 1.5 seconds was pretty close! I can't wait to get back in my classroom to try 3 seconds and determine if there is a big difference in responses!

Jennifer Gonzalez's picture
Jennifer Gonzalez
Blogger at Cult of Pedagogy

Maddie, this is an excellent list of ideas, and the other suggestions that have been added in the comments are effective, too. I am a huge fan of think-pair share, and have often added an extra step (think-WRITE-pair-share), where students write their own answer down first before discussing it with a partner -- this builds in a little more independent thought time. I also love the Estimation Line-Ups (we called this Human Barometer!) because they force everyone to take a stand somewhere. I've never heard of snowball to avalanche and really want to try it!

What I've noticed is that a lot of teachers don't even realize that they have a disproportionate number of students who don't participate, or they don't realize the impact this dynamic can have on those quiet students, day after day. I call this phenomenon "fisheye teaching" -- the tendency to view our classes as if we're looking through a peep-hole: some just take up more "room" than others, distorting our perception and making us believe we're engaging with more students than we actually are. I wrote about this in my most recent post, which you can read here:

Thanks for a useful article!

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

Jennifer, that's a great observation. I've noticed the "fisheye" effect too but never quite articulated it. Thank you for sharing.

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