What can I do if students don’t speak up in discussions?

posted June 20, 2017 and revised October 6, 2022
by Stephanie Chasteen, University of Colorado Boulder

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 article focuses on helping students engage productively in discussions in active learning classrooms.

Interested in more ideas on student engagement? You can see all my articles on helping students engage in active learning, and also download a PDF summary of all recommended engagement 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. 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 and “How can I help students work well in small groups, so they are more likely to engage?

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.

Another form of accountability is an expectation that students will speak up in the whole class discussion. Calling on students at random (“random call”) can help with accountability. There are two kinds of random call, individual and group. Some studies find that individual random call generates a sense of responsibility for speaking up and increases students’ comfort with participating in class discussions (Dallimore, Hertenstein, and Platt 2012), including female students (Eddy, Brownell, and Wenderoth 2014), but also has drawbacks. Individual random call has been found to increase students’ anxiety because of fear of negative evaluation (Cooper, Downing, and Brownell 2018). Another study found that group random call (calling on a small group of students instead of an individual) also had a positive influence on the quality of certain aspects of the groups’ conversations in anticipation of the random calling of their group (Knight, Wise, and Sieke 2016). If you want to use random call to help with accountability, consider calling on small groups of students (instead of individuals) to mitigate student anxiety, and ensure that you have a healthy classroom culture (link to 5- Community article) where students are respected and their ideas are valued.

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

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 “How can I create a classroom community, so that students feel encouraged to engage?"

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).

This article is a product of 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 University of Colorado 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.

Image courtesy of PhET Interactive Simulations, University of Colorado Boulder

References