Mayo's Clinics

Apr 1, 2020, 0:53

Mayo’s Clinics: Encouraging Student Participation

17 December 2009

By Dr. Fred Mayo, CHE, CHT

fredmayoThe more you establish your expectation of participation and help students reach it, the better the learning experience for all.

One of the most challenging aspects of teaching is getting our students involved in class discussion and other class activities. Sometimes, they are shy or reluctant because of fear of not being articulate or making errors; other times their cultural backgrounds limit their willingness to participate in active discussions. They may also be anxious about appearing stupid or afraid they may not understand. Since we know that students who use ideas and discuss them tend to learn and remember them better, this issue of Mayo’s Clinics provides four suggestions about this dimension of teaching.

Set Expectations
The most fundamental principle of encouraging student participation is to set the expectation that students should participate in class discussions and that you will help them to participate. In the syllabus, I indicate that students should participate in class discussions, and I set the norms that everyone will participate as much as possible. On the first day, I call on students, asking them to state their names and something about themselves. Typically, I connect it to the subject matter of the course, and do not ask the questions that most faculty members ask, such as home town or experience in the industry, since students have heard those questions all week long at the beginning of the term. In Customer Relationship Management, I ask them about their most vivid positive or negative customer-service experiences; in Applied Research, I ask them about the last time they researched a restaurant, bar, hotel, vacation spot or clothing store.

Establishing a culture of participation from the first class makes it clear that everyone will participate and that any attempt at involvement and participation will be appreciated. I do that by tossing the ball to individual students. Then I ask them to pick the next person and toss the ball to him or her. This strategy gets them to notice who is participating and who is not; they call on each other and make sure that everyone is involved. The result is that they encourage and support each other in talking more.

Invite Specifically
An easy way for students to avoid participation is to look down at their notes or the floor when you ask general questions. After all, you did not ask them a question; why should they respond? I find that students participate more actively when called upon by name. Using their correct names and looking at them helps them see that you want them to participate in the discussion, answer the question or otherwise contribute. Sometimes, I call on them by name while looking at them and sometimes from across the room while looking at another student. Knowing that I might call on them when I am in another part of the classroom tends to keep all students more alert, focused and ready to participate.

If they do not know the answer to the question or have not completed the reading, I let them pass and compliment them for their honesty. I do not want them to try to make up something. Another approach is to ask them to comment on what someone else said so that they still participate even if they have not done the reading.


Praise Involvement
Since it is hard for some student to speak up and participate actively, I praise students for their involvement even if they do not know the answer to a question. In the situation where they were not paying attention and did not hear the question, I will repeat it for them and acknowledge the fact that we all daydream at times. If they want to answer but are unsure, I encourage them to try and tell them that I know they know the answer, and all of us help them come up with a full or accurate answer. Knowing that I am on their side and do not want them to fail often helps them to feel comfortable and willing to try.

In cases where students are very reluctant, I help them with individual ideas like suggesting possible phrases, facts or acronyms to trigger their memory of the subject. We all freeze up at times–I even use my sister’s phrase that “you had a brain freeze and it can melt–better than a memory loss that cannot be recovered.”

Empower Them to Say No
If you really want them to participate, give them the chance to say yes and no to participation. Often, students do not know the material or have not done the reading. In that case, they have nothing to say, and I encourage them to be honest and say, “Sorry, I have not done the reading today,” I compliment them on their honesty and give them a chance to contribute in other ways. I also give students the chance to pass; all they have to say is “I want to pass on this question” or “I want to pass right now,” and I honor that request. Of course, at the beginning of the semester, I indicate that anyone can pass at any time, but if someone passes all the time, I will have a conversation with the individual, since passing all the time is not appropriate for the course.

Letting students say no to participation encourages them to say yes when they have something to say and can make real contributions.

Encourage students to participate in class discussion and activities; after all, that is how they will learn more. The more that you establish that expectation and help them reach it, the better the learning experience for all students.

If you have other ideas or suggestions for encouraging students to participate in class, let me know and I will share them in future Mayo’s Clinics.

Fred Mayo is a clinical professor at New York University and a frequent presenter at CAFÉ events nationwide. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..