What can I do if students don’t speak up in discussions with peers, or with the whole class?

posted June 20, 2017 and revised July 5, 2017
by Stephanie Chasteen, University of Colorado Boulder

Chapter 8: Student discussions. This expert recommendation is part of a series on helping students engage productively in active learning classrooms.

Many active learning techniques require students to discuss their ideas either in small groups or in a large class discussion, but, as you know, students don’t always erupt into productive conversation. This chapter focuses on helping students engage productively in discussions in active learning classrooms.

The goals of this project is to identify and disseminate strategies that instructors use to engage students in active learning classrooms. This project arose from the Framing the Interactive Engagement Classroom project, led by Stephanie Chasteen (University of Colorado Boulder), with collaboration from Jon Gaffney (Eastern Kentucky University) and Andrew Boudreaux (Western Washington University).Many thanks to reviewers Rebecca Ciancanelli and Jenny Knight, plus undergraduate assistant Maya Fohrman.This work was generously supported by the University of Colorado Science Education Initiative and the University of Colorado Center for STEM Learning, via a Chancellor’s Award. Please contact Stephanie Chasteen with any comments or questions.

Click here to access the entire set of Expert Recommendations on productive student engagement. You may also download a zip file of all recommendations and activities (26 MB), a PDF of these articles, and a PDF summary of our recommended strategies.

How do I get students to discuss in small groups?

Students can experience very real anxiety when asked to discuss their ideas with their peers, especially if they did not anticipate that they would be required to interact in this way. See Chapter 4: Class Community for a discussion of the importance of helping students feel safe sharing their ideas and creating a collaborative class culture. Below are a few specific strategies for promoting student discussion that promote student motivation and accountability for engagement. See also PhysPort’s recommendations for how to get students to engage in productive discussion of clicker questions.

Be involved in the activity by approaching passive student groups, and gently encouraging them to participate. This has been shown to result in increased engagement (Shekhar et al., 2015). You can also listen to their conversations, “shopping” for ideas and difficulties to bring up in the large class discussion.

Use challenging, complex problems that students need each other to solve, and that are inherently interesting and motivating. Shekhar and Borrego (2016) found that when presented with a complex problem, students who had originally resisted sitting near their peers moved to a nearby group so they could discuss. A problem that requires group effort can thus lessen student resistance.

For example, you might use clickers to have students respond to questions at the end of group activities. See other ideas in Chapter 7: Group work.

Another form of accountability is an expectation that students will speak up in the whole class discussion. “Random call” provides this accountability, as well as increasing students’ comfort participating in class discussions (Dallimore, Hertenstein and Platt, 2012; Knight, Wise and Sieke, 2016) and increasing participation of female students (Eddy, Brownell and Wenderoth, 2014). Shekhar and Borrego (2016) found that cold-calling on students at the end of an activity increased group participation from one activity to the next. Conversely, when the instructor announced that she wouldn’t call on students, participation dropped from 90% to 10%. Warm students up to the idea of random-call by using it in your first class, but giving students a chance to reflect and prepare their answer in advance. You can use a randomized class list, dice, a deck of cards with student names on them, or phone applications such as Names in a Hat.

If possible, seating students in groups has been shown to facilitate discussion (Shekhar and Borrego, 2016).

See strategies in Chapter 4: Class Community.

How do I get students to speak up in whole class discussions?

Many active learning techniques require students to speak up in a whole class discussion. Even more so than in a small group, it is quite intimidating for students to speak up in front of a large group. If you get an uncomfortable silence when you ask students to share their answers with the whole class, you’re not alone. Here are some strategies for motivating students to take the risk.

An alternative way of hearing student ideas, though often limited to ABCDE, is to use electronic response systems to motivate students to participate (Shekhar and Borrego, 2016).

See discussion of “random call” in the section above. This has the added benefit of increasing student comfort with sharing their ideas over time (Dallimore, Hertenstein and Platt, 2012).

Some instructors toss out candy or give gold-star stickers to students who speak up in class (best if done a little tongue-in-cheek). Another great idea is to use Sticky Participation Points, where each participating student is given a post-it note that serves as extra credit or participation credit. Either way, the action rewards students explicitly for their effort, and sends the message that you value student contributions.

To increase verbal participation and give students a chance to process, wait at least 3-5 seconds for a student response after asking a question. It’s best to actively count up those seconds, as it usually feels like a long time while you’re standing quietly, not saying anything. But the wait will pay off; with additional wait time, more students volunteer answers, are willing to share when called on, and give more complete answers (Allen and Tanner, 2002).

If after adequate wait time you still hear no responses, maybe students are lost. Have them think on their own for a specified amount of time (e.g., 30 seconds), and then signal them to turn to their neighbor and discuss, and then be ready to share with the whole class.

You might explicitly ask students to write out their ideas quietly as in a minute paper (perhaps requiring students to purchase a pack of index cards for this purpose). When they pass these up to you, you can scan them for the main ideas, and maybe grade for participation (Tanner 2013). Some technologies such as PollEverywhere also allow students to input text responses for anonymous display.

Assigning a reporter ensures that those less likely to volunteer will have opportunities to practice sharing their ideas (Tanner, 2013). Ask groups to select the person with the darkest shirt, whose birthday is closest to today, or who has the longest hair (especially if you want to encourage female participation.) In smaller classes, you can put colored clips on students’ Name Tents, or hand out colored index cards as students enter (Tanner, 2013).

Particularly in smaller classes, require each student to share a response to the question in 30 seconds or less (Tanner, 2013). In a larger class, you could ask all students in a single row to share their response.

This includes responding supportively to student ideas, and being tactful in the face of student mistakes. See strategies in Chapter 4: Class Community.

Summary and Action Items

Many active learning techniques require students to discuss their ideas either in small groups or in a large class discussion, but, as you know, students don’t always erupt into productive conversation. Here are some strategies to help students engage productively in discussions in active learning classrooms.

General approaches

Specific strategies

Help students participate in discussion in small groups

Students can experience very real anxiety when asked to discuss their ideas with their peers, especially if they did not anticipate that they would be required to interact in this way.

  • Circulate and listen in.
  • Use questions that students want to discuss.
  • Hold students accountable for small group discussions.
  • Use “random call” during whole class discussions.
  • Use cluster seating.
  • Promote a culture where expressing ideas is safe and normal.

Help students speak up during class discussion

Many active learning techniques require students to speak up in a whole class discussion. Even more so than in a small group, it is quite intimidating for students to speak up in front of a large group.

  • Use student response systems (“clickers”).
  • Use “random call” during whole class discussions.
  • Give points or rewards for speaking up.
  • Increase your “wait time.”
  • Use Think-Pair-Share to help them process the question.
  • Have them write down their responses.
  • Assign a group reporter.
  • Use the “whip around.”
  • Promote a culture where expressing ideas is safe and normal.

Further reading on this topic

Reading List

  1. Allen, D., & Tanner, K., Approaches to cell biology teaching: questions about questions, Cell Biology Education. 1(3), 63-67 (2002).
  2. Dallimore, E. J., Hertenstein, J. H., & Platt, M. B., Impact of cold-calling on student voluntary participation, Journal of Management Education. 1052562912446067 (2012).
  3. Shekhar, P., Borrego, M., ‘Not hard to sway’: a case study of student engagement in two large engineering classes, European Journal of Engineering Education. DOI: 10.1080/03043797.2016.1209463 (2016).

References

  1. Allen, D., & Tanner, K., Approaches to cell biology teaching: questions about questions, Cell Biology Education. 1(3), 63-67 (2002).
  2. Dallimore, E. J., Hertenstein, J. H., & Platt, M. B., Impact of cold-calling on student voluntary participation, Journal of Management Education. 1052562912446067 (2012).
  3. Shekhar, P., Borrego, M., ‘Not hard to sway’: a case study of student engagement in two large engineering classes, European Journal of Engineering Education. DOI: 10.1080/03043797.2016.1209463 (2016).
  4. Shekhar, P., Demonbrun, M., Borrego, M., Finelli, C., Prince, M., Henderson, C., & Waters, C.. Development of an observation protocol to study undergraduate engineering student resistance to active learning. International Journal of Engineering Education, 31(2), 597-609 (2015).
  5. Tanner, K. D., Structure matters: twenty-one teaching strategies to promote student engagement and cultivate classroom equity, CBE-Life Sciences Education. 12(3), 322-331 (2013).
  6. Knight J.K., Wise S.B., Sieke S. Group random call can positively affect student in-class clicker discussions. CBE Life Sci. Educ. 15(4) (2016)

Image courtesy of PhET Interactive Simulations, University of Colorado Boulder