Student Participation & Engagement

Over my years of teaching, I’ve noticed something that many studies have commented on: in many classrooms, there are only a few students who regularly raise their hands to ask and answer questions, while many more are silent observers.

One solution that is often proffered is the idea of cold calling or randomly calling students instead of taking hands. In this way, the idea is that students will be “ready” at any time to share out their ideas. However, I’ve noticed that this causes resentment and anger sometimes on the part of students, as they don’t like being caught off-guard or being called on for an answer they didn’t feel prepared for or sure of.

Another strategy often suggested is giving them wait time or think time or sometimes even writing time or sharing in pairs time. However, I’ve noticed that this often only increases the number of hands marginally, but students who NEVER participate rarely are encouraged to do so by this method.

So this year, I’m deciding to try something new. I let the first few weeks go by like “normal,” observing which students raise their hands regularly and which students are more quiet. Taking note of which classes have more or fewer active participants and if there’s any correlation with the time of day I see them (i.e. more loud, off-task conversations after lunch vs. more heads down and quiet first period).

Now I’ve got several mental lists of students: students who I can “count on” to raise their hands daily (usually multiple times per day), students who will raise their hand when prompted for “students we haven’t heard from lately,” students who only share short answers or only share rarely, and students have not shared at all. Now I’m considering what to do to target those students and encourage them to participate in the verbal conversation of class.

My two ideas that I want to try this year are the following:

During turn-and-talks, hovering near those students and listening for them to share something that I could ask them to share with the whole class OR during work-time on problem solving or answering questions, observing what they’re thinking about, and asking them to share during whole class.

Writing a little post-it note to them telling them I’d like to hear their voice more in class because I think they have valuable things to contribute and either asking them to pick once this week they’re going to raise their hand and I’m going to call on them OR to write me a note about why they haven’t raised their hand in math class at all yet.

I’m also in the process of creating an extensive google form survey to ask my students to reflect on their class participation and how they either feel they do or don’t successfully participate on a daily basis. And in my survey, one thing I was especially proud of doing, was ensuring that when I wrote down the ways you participate, I included both talking in the whole group as well as in partnerships, asking questions, taking notes, listening actively, and solving the problems in their notes. So that allows students to consider a variety of ways they can successfully participate in class, and avoids overvaluing the contribution of the extroverted confident students who raise their hands a lot.

Writing my name tent messages with my students for a week gave me an insight into their minds, and I’m already referring back to our messages inside for ideas of ways to engage them in class – I’m even considering putting the post-it note messages INSIDE for them to discover! (As an aside, I haven’t decided what to do with the name tents yet. So far, I’ve been collecting them every day and redistributing them to the students – and by collecting, I mean my student teacher has been doing this, and some of the students have stopped setting up their names tents, in part, I assume, because many of them feel like everyone already knows their name by now – even though that may or may not be true. I’m wondering how long I continue using the name tents, if they go all year or what… A few of my students also asked me if we were going to get NEW name tents to continue writing messages to each other, and I told them no, but I was thinking about having us do it AGAIN in January (or perhaps sooner, if it seems necessary).


One thought on “Student Participation & Engagement

  1. I think all teachers find ourselves struggling with this. You have some great ideas here. I often announce to the class “I’m going to call on every one of you at some point today so when you want to participate be sure to raise your hand.” The ones who normally don’t volunteer tend to put their hands up right away because they want to be called on when their hand IS up rather than be cold called.

    I will sometimes say “I’d like to hear from Sarah or Gabe or Alyssa” narrowing down the pool. Usually one of them will raise their hand knowing that it “saves” the other two for now.

    If I do cold-call a student, I do everything I can to make it a positive experience. I try to never say “no that’s wrong”. Instead “I see how you got that.” Or “that’s a very common mistake to make”. My worst fear is to unintentionally punish a student for contributing.

    Thanks for sharing your ideas!

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