Faculty Focus


Student Recommendations for Encouraging Participation

Getting students to participate in class is one of those perplexing instructional problems we all face, particularly when teaching undergraduate classes. Are there significant differences in the graduate classroom?

A recent qualitative study generated and analyzed responses from students in two graduate management accounting courses. Class context here was an important part of the study. In both courses the development of critical-thinking skills that apply to management situations were emphasized. Class discussion occurred mostly around case studies. “Students in these classes were told orally and in the syllabus to expect to be called on when their hands were not raised.” (p. 106) And, participation was graded in these courses. On the last day of the class students completed a questionnaire that asked what professors do or say that increases student participation and what professor do or say that increases or decreases the effectiveness of discussion. (p. 106) The questions used to solicit responses on these topics included both closed and open questions.

Responses clustered in six areas and identified a variety of faculty behaviors or characteristics that students said influenced participation and discussion.

  • Required/graded participation — Students suggested that both participation and discussion were positively impacted when participation was required, when it counted for a significant part of the grade and when instructors used “cold-calling,” as in calling on students regardless of whether or not they volunteered. [This finding is different than other research highlighted in The Teaching Professor where undergraduate students reported that being allowed to volunteer motivated them to participate more. See reference below]
  • Incorporating ideas and experience into discussion — Students value instructor responses that elaborate on their ideas, taking them further and applying them to course content. They also believe participation and discussion benefit when they include real-life examples and experience.
  • Active facilitation — A variety of strategies were grouped in this category, including challenging students to answer more in depth, not letting people dominate the discussion, and stopping folks who are just participating for the sake of participating.
  • Asking effective questions — This is related to the old adage about the quality of the questions being predictive of the quality of the answers. But there was also this student observation about a response that decreases discussion: “when a facilitator is looking for specific answers and does not consider alternative concepts.” (p. 109)
  • Supportive classroom environment — The word “encourage” appears in many student comments as well as admonitions to be patient with students, giving them time to find their way to a right or better answer.
  • Affirm contributions and provide constructive feedback — Recommendations here ranged from stressing how the class benefits from wrong answers to making reference subsequently to student answers or writing good student responses on the board.

The authors raise a number of interesting questions about the “cold-calling” strategy: Is it inherently undemocratic because it takes away a student’s right to choose whether or not they should participate? Or is it democratic because it equalizes the amount of participation across students? How should an instructor use the strategy? Does the approach influence students’ comfort levels, perhaps even their learning? Do different student populations respond differently to being called on?

Reference: Dallimore, E. J., Hertenstein, J. H., and Platt, M. B. (2004). Classroom participation and discussion effectiveness: Student-generated strategies. Communication Education, 53 (1), 103-115.

Reference on volunteering from an earlier issue: Auster, C. J., and MacRone, M. (1994). The classroom as a negotiated social setting: An empirical study of the effects of faculty member’s behaviors on students’ participation. Teaching Sociology, 22 (4), 289-300.

Maryellen Weimer, PhD, professor emerita of teaching and learning at Penn State – Berks, is the editor of The Teaching Professor.

Excerpted from The Teaching Professor, Jan. 2005. To read the article in its entirety, download the FREE report Tips for Encouraging Student Participation in Classroom Discussions.