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Avoiding the "Bump on a Log" Syndrome

Why is it Difficult to Get Active Class Participation from Some Students?

  1. When students do participate, they are taking a risk. They may be wrong and are therefore exposing themselves to criticism. For many students, it's easier to simply keep quiet and let someone else take the risk.
  2. Many students operate under the assumption that their professors will give them all the answers, and the students' only job is to simply receive that information. (Howell, 2001)
  3. Some students fail to complete their reading, homework, or other assignments in preparation for class which then makes it difficult for them to participate.
  4. Some students don't know how to participate. They may not know what to say, or when and how to say it.

Do our Students Benefit from Participating in Class?

  1. Getting students actively involved in learning leads to improved attendance, deeper questioning, higher grades and a lasting interest in the subject. (Felder, 1992)
  2. Participating in discussion is more likely to change students' attitudes, help them to transfer knowledge to new situations, and motivate them to learn more about a topic. (Nilson, 1998)
  3. Students retain information from discussions longer than from lectures. (Nilson, 1998).
  4. Students learn more from participating in discussions because they have a chance to clear up any confusion and to truly understand the fundamentals. (Derek Bok Center, 1997)

Strategies to Encourage Class Participation.

At the onset of the semester consider the following:

  1. Begin the semester by clearly stating your expectations for student participation, both in the syllabus and in class.
  2. Go over what specific behaviors will be expected and what qualifies as participation. You may consider the following activities to be equally valid forms of class participation: Visiting office hours, completing One-Minute Papers at the end of the class, asking questions in writing or orally, and engaging in classroom discussions. (Dosh, 2002)
  3. Invite input from students on what they think should be included as classroom participation. Have them individually brainstorm ideas and then put all suggestions on the board to discuss as a class.
  4. Have students work in small groups to develop a list of class rules for behavior and participation.
  5. Have students do paired work and randomly assign pairs to allow them to get to know others in the class.
  6. Prepare an icebreaker for the first day of class so that students have a chance to know one another. We feel more comfortable speaking with people we know than with people we do not. (Nilson, 1998)
  7. During an early class meeting, conduct an informal survey. Begin by asking students to raise their hands in response to general questions such as, "How many of you are freshman, sophomores, etc?" and "How many of you work full-time or part-time?" Then move to opinion questions including those relevant to your course material. Students will get an idea about the diversity in the class and will begin to see what they have in common. (Nilson, 1998)
  8. If you want students to participate, provide them with the opportunity to do so on the first day. It's more difficult to get students to be active once they've become used to being silent. (Derek Bok Center, 1997) Try an icebreaker on the first day.
    • As an icebreaker, you can have all students share their knowledge of the subject or their expectations of what the course will cover. This gives you useful information about their level of preparation or understanding, while setting the stage for regular class participation. (Nilson, 1998)
  9. Create an atmosphere that invites students to participate and welcomes their questions and comments. (e.g., ask if there are questions, reassure students that there are no stupid questions, etc.)
  10. Learn students' names. This increases their level of comfort and accountability, and allows you to call them by name and acknowledge their contributions.
  11. Arrange seating to promote participation and discussion. Have students face each other instead of asking them to talk to the backs of their classmates. In particular, U-shaped seating promotes class discussion. (Davis, 1993) (Nilson, 1998)
  12. Consider attaching grades to participation. This increases the chances of students coming to class prepared. If you do this, it's a good idea to clarify with students how you will evaluate their participation. (Nilson, 1998)

Instructor Initiatives

  1. Arrive a little early and chat with students as they arrive so that you can "loosen the class up." This gets them ready to participate. (Nilson, 1998)
  2. Put an outline on the board or use an overhead. This organization will make it easier to guide the discussion and gives students an idea of where you are heading. (Nilson, 1998)
  3. Use small group discussions. Students may feel intimidated when speaking to the entire class, but be more comfortable contributing to a discussion with only two or three of their peers. In addition, they may be more comfortable asking a few peers questions than asking the entire class.
  4. Avoid the temptation to talk too much. Allow students to develop ideas and to respond to the ideas of their classmates. (Davis, 1993)
  5. When using overheads, graphs, or tables, ask students to tell you what they are seeing before you explain what they have seen.
  6. Give students the opportunity to prepare for participation. If you are planning to have a class discussion over a particular topic, provide a few questions or objectives in advance that will be the focus of discussion. (Svinicki, 2002)
  7. Before showing a video or other media presentation, provide students with a set of specific questions to be answered or discussed afterward.
  8. Allow yourself adequate time to prepare before the class session so that your activities appear planned and well-organized. While some instructors can "wing it," most of us feel more comfortable with a well-thought-out course of action, complete with a back up plan "just in case."
  9. Avoid answering your own questions. Give students time to respond; if they don't, rephrase the question and wait. In general, students need up to 20 or 30 seconds to formulate a response. (Svinicki, 2002)
  10. Be free with encouragement and praise, showing students that you value their contributions.
  11. Be sure to correct misconceptions instead of letting them pass, but encourage students to detect errors themselves by inviting elaboration. (Svinicki, 2002)
  12. Do not ridicule wrong answers or use a particular student in the class as an example of what not to say or do.
  13. Ask only one question at a time. This minimizes confusion and increases the chances of getting a response. When instructors reword a question, they often actually ask a different question without realizing it. (Weimer, 1993)
  14. When a student asks a question that is difficult to answer, avoid giving the impression that the question is stupid. If you don't understand the question, ask for more information, or if you don't know the answer to a question acknowledge that fact. Some questions are irrelevant at the time and may need to be answered later in the course, while some are disruptive and are better addressed outside of class. (Weimer, 1993)
  15. Ask "what" and "how" questions that invite elaboration and explanation instead of those questions that can be answered either "yes" or "no."

Planning for Student Interaction and Participation

  1. Periodically throughout a lecture, assess students' levels of understanding. Give each student four flashcards, with either A, B, C, or D on it. Ask a multiple choice question and ask students to hold up the right answer. (Mehta & Danielson, 2002). Or, ask students to work in small groups or pairs to discuss their responses before asking them to answer the question.
  2. Have a student, instead of the professor call on the next speaker during a discussion. This increases participation and student interaction. (Silberman, 1996).
  3. Instead of answering a question yourself, choose a student in class to respond to a question asked by his or her classmate.
  4. During a lecture, periodically ask students to write for a minute or two in response to a specific question. Then discuss their responses. (Derek Bok Center, 1997).
  5. Require students to comment or share their perspective a minimum or maximum number of times in the class or throughout the semester. One technique is to give each student a certain number of game pieces or comment cards. Each time a student speaks, she or he gives the piece to the professor and by the end of the session or course, all pieces must be used. This helps to balance participation from all class members. (Sadker & Sadker, 1992)
  6. Involve students in defining what constitutes an effective discussion. Ask students to work in small groups and recall discussions in which they've participated that were useful, as well as those that they'd classify as poor or ineffective discussions. Then have the students identify the characteristics and qualities of effective and ineffective discussions and share these with the class. (Davis, 1993)
  7. Use quiz game formats to generate energy and involvement. Students can work individually, in pairs, or in teams. This can be used to review for an upcoming test or simply to reinforce learning. (Silberman, 1996)
  8. Use response cards to get broad participation among students. Pass out index cards for students to anonymously write their answers to a question you have posted on the board. Then collect the cards and discuss their responses. (Silberman, 1996)
  9. At the beginning of each class period, ask students to summarize what happened during the previous class meeting. You may randomly call on several students to contribute, ask one student, or instruct everyone to write at least five important points that were covered and then review the responses as a class.
  10. Quickly go around the room asking each student to respond to a specific question contributing a piece of information. This is a good method of hearing from everyone.
    • For example, ask every student to complete the sentence "One consequence of the increasing use of technology in our society is..." To avoid redundancy, ask students to contribute something original to the discussion, and allow them to pass if, on occasion, they have nothing new to add. (Silberman, 1996)


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