Encouraging student involvement in college classes

by Julie Dodd

Why are some students ready to answer every question while other students are silent throughout the class?

Quiet book cover

Susan Cain’s book can help teachers better understand their students who are introverts.

As a member of the University of Florida’s Graduate Student Awards Committee, I have the opportunity to observe a wide range of classes, including Mindful Leadership, Cities of the World, and Expository and Argumentative Writing. I’ve observed classes with more than 200 students and classes with fewer than a dozen students.

The eager to talk students and reticent to talk students exist in every classroom setting.

Getting students actively involved in college classes is a goal to promote more effective learning.

So how can you get students to participate?

I recently observed a sociology class with 26 students. During the 50-minute class period, 14 different students talked – asking questions, answering questions, or sharing insights.

The graduate student teaching the sociology class did a good job of getting half the class to participate. Here are strategies she used to promote class involvement:

  • Motivated students to be prepared to participate. On Mondays when I new weekly topic begins, students turn in Reading Notes as a graded assignment. The Reading Notes are summaries of key points from the week’s readings and questions the students have about the readings. Writing the reading notes (which can be handwritten notes) makes the students prepared to participate in the class discussion about the topic.
  • Created a classroom climate where students were tuned in to the class. A course policy in the syllabus asked students not to use technology during class and encouraged students to take handwritten notes. (The syllabus included a link to research supporting the learning value of taking handwritten notes versus typing notes.) Students were taking notes by hand and were listening. No one appeared to be off task.
  • Encouraged student participation.
    • Throughout class, she asked questions and then called on students who volunteered.
    • After each major topic she presented, she would ask: “Do you have any questions?” She asked in a way that conveyed that she was interested in getting questions.
    • She gave positive feedback to each student who participated, acknowledging what each student said and giving positive facial feedback. Even if a student asked a question that was off topic or gave an answer that wasn’t correct, the teacher incorporated the student’s response in a way that was positive in advancing the discussion and that would make the student feel validated.
  • Called on students by name. (That’s not always possible depending on the size of the class.)
  • Rephrased her question if the students didn’t understand her question or were slow to respond.
  • Restated or summarized what a student said if the student’s comment was not loud enough to be heard by everyone in class.
  • Sought involvement from students who hadn’t volunteered. When some of the same students kept volunteering to answer questions, she would say  “I’d like to hear from students who haven’t talked yet today,” and then she would call on students who hadn’t spoken before.

Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking can be a valuable resource for teachers interested in promoting greater student involvement in class and, most importantly, understanding why some students don’t speak up.

Cain discusses the value of introverts. Introverts can be creative but not self-promoting. Introverts can be good listeners and more reflective but not be talkers. In group discussions and team activities, introverts can have better ideas than the outspoken extroverts but can have their opinions overlooked.

She traces the rise of the Extrovert Ideal during the twentieth century that often has led businesses and organizations to embrace leaders who are extroverts making quick decisions and being decisive rather than selecting leaders who are introverts, often being more insightful and better able to see the big picture.

Cain includes advice teachers can use in designing classroom practices and assignments.

  • Value your students who are introverts. Try to help them be successful in your classroom but don’t try to turn them into extroverts.
  • Provide a five-second wait time when you ask a question. Some extroverts are raising their hands to speak even before you’ve finished asking the question. By providing some wait time, you’re letting the introverts have time to formulate an answer and be ready to respond.
  • Use think-pair-share. Instead of posing a question and having one student answer the question, raise the question and have students talk with a partner about the answer. That gets everyone involved. From there, you can call on the typically quiet students because they’ve had time to reflect on the question and formulate an answer. [The graduate student teaching the sociology course told me that she often uses this technique when she has more time in class to devote to student participation.]
  • Don’t make all class assignments group projects. Introverts often prefer to work independently rather than in a group. So provide a mix of graded assignments.
  • In structuring a group project, assign roles to help everyone know what their responsibilities are.

Use these strategies to make discussions in your class include all of your students, not just the more outspoken ones. Such discussions will provide a broader range of issues and views. Including all students in discussion (which can include think-pair-share and partner conversations) helps all students practice contributing to the conversation and listening to what others say.

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