Varying Means of Participation to Support ALL Learners

By Nathaniel Smith, Class of 2025

As a student at any university, when you enter the classroom for the first time there is a period where both the students and the professor are feeling each other out. The student is gauging classmates around them, and vice versa; the teacher is learning who talks more, who talks less, and who does not talk at all. We can dive into the reasons why some students participate (at least verbally) more than others, but the more important question from my perspective is how the teacher can be effective at engaging the students they have for just fifteen quick weeks. How does a professor cultivate and create a multidimensional interactive classroom where students are interacting with each other, the professor, and the class, while simultaneously comprehending and retaining the material? 

Equity of Participation

Professors need to take on the mindset of “Equity of Participation,” or considering variety in the amount and format in which a student participates compared to their classmates. Students learn differently; no one learner consumes knowledge and information the same way. Therefore, to assess participation you must take a comprehensive approach to how each student is contributing to the class period. For instance, not every student is going to participate verbally in class discussion. That does not mean they should be penalized for feeling more comfortable conveying information through a different format, like an online discussion board. This concept of equity of participation is critical to how teachers should approach engaging several types of learners in their classrooms. The primary ways students learn to participate are through graded assignments and the way a professor responds to their participation early in the semester. Students will increase their participation if the instructor poses a question to the class and indicates that students should debate or discuss whether they agree or disagree; in other words, you must present students with a clear structure within which they can participate.   

Far too often, in higher education, student to student participation does not happen, and it often turns into student-to-professor or student-to-self-participation. For example, answering questions in class is often presented as a strategy to increase student participation, and if done correctly it can. However, if a professor poses a question to the class, usually one person is going to answer, then the teacher will respond to that. This style of participation inhibits other students from responding to their classmates’ answer and engaging that student in discussion.  If students are not given the opportunity to engage in dialogue, ask questions, or share their own ideas and perspectives, then their learning and development in that classroom is limited. 


Strategies to Enhance Student Participation

Certain strategies can support teaching through facilitating. I think back to the college classes I have had and one clear strategy that professors have implemented is creating smaller groups, either online through discussion boards or in class. Students can discuss specific questions about an assignment or respond to points brought up in the reading; then, each member of that group presents and shares what they talked about with the class. This is called “Jigsaw” and it not only creates the dynamic that students are leading the discussion and therefore their education, but the teacher can add on to what students are saying instead of the other way around.  

Some ways that instructors can enhance student participation are: 

  • Final word: Students summarize what they learned. 
  • Four corners: Each corner of the room is labeled with a different opinion. Students decide on a corner to argue for, and then students discuss their ideas with others who chose the same corner as well as challenge those in other corners on their points/ beliefs.) 
  • Dialogue stems: The instructor presents a specifically designed question to students to get them engaged with the class material. With this style of question students should be able to continue the conversation with a partner. 
  •  Jigsaw: Students are organized in groups, and each group discusses a different specific topic, idea, or question. Then each member of that group will go back to an original group comprised of members from the different discussion groups to share what their group talked about. This means that students are relying on each other to understand a topic; you can also have each group share and have other students ask questions about their topic as they would a teacher. 
  • Think-Pair-Share: Students first think about their answer to a question, then discuss it with 2-3 people, and then finally share their thoughts with the whole class. The questions can be about reading, or anything related to the course. It is often done at the beginning of a class to get students thinking about a topic.  
  • Wait Time: Allowing students time to process information before engaging in discussion is critical to having students who participate less become engaged. 
  • Anticipatory Reading Guide: If there is a particularly dense reading assigned to students and you want to ensure they retain more or all the information, then use a reading guide where you pose questions to students before they read and have them think about their answers and compare them to after they read. Reading guides help students identify what they should be looking for and thinking about as they are reading. This refined approach to reading helps improve the quality of discussion in class as students are more aware of the questions and information they should learn from the reading)

I believe that a classroom that promotes participation in multiple forms on a regular basis gets students to buy into their learning and engage in the material more than a classroom where professors put up a slideshow and lecture. Professors that use “student-centered teaching” and aim to facilitate conversations through the posing of broad questions create a dynamic wherein they can guide students toward a deeper exploration of the course content. Multidimensional and multimodal participation helps students understand and retain more information and enables instructors to assess diverse student learners and their level of comprehension and retention of the material. 

Interviews with Students about Equitable Participation

In addition to providing my own perspective on equitable participation in the college classroom, I also wanted to talk with two of my classmates that I felt could offer a different outlook. Calvin and Qudsia’s experiences with participation differed from my own due to their respective majors. I believe that highlighting their views on active engagement gives an impression of how other students approach participation in college 

Calvin’s Interview – Set a Welcoming Tone for Student Participation

Listen to Calvin’s interview. 

Calvin is a sophomore graduating in the class of 2025. He is studying political science and has a minor in economics. I chose to interview him because, as you will hear, he does not participate too often in class, but the way in which he does, and his thought process, provide insight into how some students look at/ think about participating. He talks about how he believes there is a scale of participating from “active listening and note taking to answering questions and discussion.” This reinforces the point that professors need to think about grading participation on a scale. If students can participate in diverse ways, then they should be graded accordingly. One other point Calvin brought up was the way teachers respond to student answers. This was in response to my question “How can a teacher create a classroom environment that encourages student participation” he said: 

“Professors regardless of whether you (meaning the student) give a right or wrong answer will try to spin it to make a point. So, if I am witnessing other students give answers that are not correct and then the teacher proceeds to say “That’s wrong” – which degrades a student – I am much less likely to try and give my input. But if the professor turns that point into relating back to the subject and can effectively incorporate all the student’s points into the lesson it is much more likely that someone who is not super participatory will participate.” (See question and response from beginning to min 3:51 to end) 

This quote from Calvin demonstrates how critical it is for professors to not shut down participation if the answer is wrong but to take what the student said and direct it, facilitate the discussion back to the topic, and point the lesson to it. As Calvin brings up, the response professors give to students who participate will affect the likelihood of other students being more engaged and answering questions.  


Qudsia’s Interview – Connect to Students’ Prior Experiences to Promote Participation 

Listen to Qudsia’s interview.

Qudsia is a Junior majoring in Elementary education with a minor in Arab world studies and is pursuing a dual masters in international training and education. Qudsia emphasized in her interview that there are several ways to participate inside and outside of class. Qudsia mentioned that each form of participation and classroom discussion will look different depending on the class and the professor. I am not advocating using only student-to-student participation, but rather a blend of multiple forms of interaction while remaining sensitive to which form of participation best fits that class. Whether it is student-to-professor, student-to-content, student-to-self, or student-to-student, be willing and have the knowledge to incorporate each one of these approaches in your classroom to best serve the learners you are teaching. Such variety is necessary because you may not know which approach works best for a student to retain the information and by having all of them embedded into your course you are ensuring that the information you are trying to teach is accessible to the student. Another point that Qudsia brought up is the importance of accessing a student’s prior knowledge when it comes to making them more likely to participate. She said:  

“Prior knowledge is also connected to lived experience. It does not necessarily have to be what you learned in the classroom, it could be what you learned in an internship or working at a job over the summer. [She goes on to say] How can my lived experiences connect to other students in the class and add to the conversation we are having.” (See question and response min 10:40- 13:28) 

The importance of incorporating a student’s prior knowledge simply means that they will have an easier time interacting with the material. If a student can draw on information learned in another class or their lived experience it not only increases student discussion but makes that type of conversation more approachable for other students. For example, if a professor frames a discussion prompt with the intention of building on students’ prior knowledge, students will have an easier time connecting their prior knowledge to the course content, which will aid in their comprehension of new material.