"Anyone? Anyone?": Five Strategies to Increase Student Participation

Accessible Version

By Aisha Haque, Language and Communication Instructor, Teaching Support Centre

You might recall the iconic scene from John Hughes’ Ferris Bueller’s Day Off where the economics teacher, played by Ben Stein, attempts to engage his class in discussion and helplessly repeats “Anyone? Anyone?” as he waits for students to respond. While this is a hilariously extreme example, many of us have had students in our classes who are exceptionally bright and hard-working but dislike actively participating in class.

The role active learning and discussions play in facilitating student learning is clear: Students are more motivated, become better critical thinkers (Garside, 1996), and report increased self-confidence when they are prepared for class and participate in discussions (Rocca, 2010). Effectively promoting student participation, however, can sometimes be a challenge if students are reluctant to participate or if the norms of the active learning classroom are unclear.

Helping students to overcome their apprehension of speaking up in class and helping them understand both the purpose and the expectations of class discussions is an important step in fostering meaningful student participation in our classes. Students from diverse cultural or educational backgrounds where active participation has not been the norm - or students who like to take time to reflect on questions before responding - will particularly benefit from this approach (Ryan, 2005).

Here are five strategies to help your students step out of their comfort zones and participate more frequently in class:

1. Establish ground rules for participation

Prepare students for their role as active learners by letting them know why participation and interaction with their peers is important and how it relates to the outcomes in your course. Students who are accustomed to being passive listeners may not know how to participate in lectures or tutorials or even understand what behaviours or comments you are seeking of them. In fact, some students may feel that the purpose of participation is to find one “right” answer that the instructor has in mind rather than to explore the topic at hand (McKeachie, 2006).

2. State your expectations

What constitutes good participation in your class? Are you looking for good attendance, preparedness for lectures or tutorials, volunteered responses to discussion questions, active listening, or perhaps all of the above? Clearly describe what “good participation” looks like in your class so that students understand your expectations of them. Furthermore, is student participation being evaluated? If so, develop a rubric for participation and make it available to students at the beginning of the term.

3. Allow for reflection

The confidence that students gain by advanced preparation and reflection helps to counteract the apprehension they may feel about participation. Students who are able to talk about the discussion topic with another student or complete it as a homework assignment before being asked to share their ideas with the entire class are more likely to participate (Rocca, 2004).

Here are two easy ways you can accomplish this:

  • Assign specific questions to students in advance (perhaps the day before), so that they can prepare responses.
  • When asking a question in class, give students a minute to write their thoughts down before calling on anyone.

4. Do pair or small group work before large class discussions

  • In large lectures, survey the class by using clickers or Poll Everywhere (a free online app that functions like a clicker by allowing you to pose questions to the class). Students respond in real time through their mobile phones, twitter, or web browsers. Visit their website for more information.
  • Think-Pair-Share: Pose a question to the class. Ask students to think about it quietly for a few moments, then pair up with someone sitting close to them to discuss their responses. Finally, ask students to share their ideas with the rest of the class.
  • Buzz Groups: Create small discussion groups (typically 3 - 5 individuals) and assign them a very specific question designed to generate ideas, solve problems, or reach consensus. Consider setting a time limit of 6-10 minutes. It won’t be long before you hear the “buzz” of intense discussion! Individual groups may appoint a spokesperson to report the results of the discussion to the class. This is an ideal activity to delve deeply into specific topics, transition from one topic to another, or review previous learning.

5. Allow for alternative forms of participation

In addition to speaking up in class, how else can students participate and share their ideas with you and with their peers? For those students who do not have a lot of experience with classroom discussions, an online discussion board in OWL or a class blog would allow for alternative forms of participation. Check out Tom Haffie’s article on page 4 of our last issue of Reflections for ideas on how to use free interactive Online Whiteboards as a discussion tool in your classes.

Other ideas include asking students to submit weekly discussion questions based on class readings or weekly journal reflections synthesizing course materials.

Using these five strategies in your class will help de-mystify the participation process for students, allow them to become more confident in sharing their ideas with peers, and enable you to seamlessly blend discussions and active learning activities into your lectures and classes.


Garside, C. (1996). Look who’s talking: A comparison of lecture and group discussion teaching strategies in developing critical thinking skills. Communication Education, 45, 212- 227.

McKeachie, W. J. & Svinicki, M. (2006). McKeachie’s teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin.

Rocca, K. A. (2010). Student participation in the classroom: An extended multidisciplinary literature review. Communication Education, 59 (2), 185-213. Retrieved from http://www. csus.edu/indiv/s/stonerm/Rocca- LitRevEngagingStudents.pdf

Ryan, J. (2005). Improving teaching and learning practices for international students: Implications for curriculum, pedagogy and assessment. In J. Carroll & J. Ryan (Eds.), Teaching international students: Improving learning for all (pp. 92-100). New York, NY: Routledge.