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Ask Professor Pedagogy: Encouraging Participation From All

Posted by on Friday, June 14, 2013 in Commentary.

Ask Professor Pedagogy is a twice monthly advice column written by Center for Teaching staff. One aspect of our mission is to cultivate dialogue about teaching and learning, so we welcome questions and concerns that arise in the classroom; particularly those from Vanderbilt faculty, students, and staff. If you have a question that you’d like Professor P to address, please send it to us.

Dear Professor Pedagogy,

Some will say I shouldn’t complain because instead of no one talking in my discussions sections, I have three to four students who tend to talk a lot. These students have reflective, sometimes incisive comments – and I don’t want to discourage them – but the rest of the class seems to zone out completely when the inner group explores a topic. Is there a way to get more of the class involved without being overly obvious? Should I just accept the fact that a large majority of my discussion class has no desire to discuss anything?

Dominating Discussions


Dear Dominating,

The thing is: you actually have two – possibly three – problems. You have the group of students who monopolize the discussion and you have the rest of the students who seldom or never participate. And the third problem? Well, it might be you my friend – or at least the way you’re leading the discussion. It’s a good thing this is a common problem and I have strategies to help you.

First, let’s discuss the monopolizers. Also known as the “answering machines” in Professor P’s circles. These students mean well – they’re interested, engaged, and participating after all! – but can sometimes become long-winded and cut others off. You can:

  • Use the talkative students’ comments to spark further discussion (“Thanks John. Would others like to comment on John’s point?”)
  • Acknowledge the point that a student’s comment raises but suggest an in-depth discussion may have to wait for a more appropriate time – especially if it’s causing the discussion to get off track (“Those ideas deserve a lot more time, Adam. Maybe we can discuss them after class?”)
  • Talk with these students directly after class if your other attempts fail. Perhaps they are trying to help guide the discussion and don’t realize they’re dominating it. If you tactfully bring this to their attention they just might oblige and perhaps will be willing to help you increase the participation of others in the class.

And then there are students who seldom speak up. These students probably don’t realize that they are withholding valuable perspectives and contributions from the class. I suggest:

  • Finding out whether these students are shy, confused, or bored.
  • Watching for clues that indicate they might want to speak up and encourage students with a smile or a verbal comment. (“Jane, you seem disturbed by Dan’s idea. What do you think?”) However, be careful that you don’t embarrass students into participating. Students who feel they have been “put on the spot” usually become even more reluctant to talk.
  • Calling on different people throughout the class. You could say, I want to hear from someone who has not yet participated.
  • Distributing the discussion questions or topics in advance to the students can help if the questions to be answered are challenging or if turns out your students are shy about participating.
  • Using poker chips or “comment cards” to encourage discussion. Each time a student speaks, a chip is turned over to the instructor. Students must spend all their chips by the end of the period. This strategy limits students who dominate the discussion and encourages quiet students to speak up. (Sadker and Sadker, 1992)

And now for your other problem: your management of the discussion. Might I suggest:

  • Take yourself out of the role of the “leader” and become a facilitator instead.
  • Learn and use your students’ names. Encourage students to learn one another’s names, as well; this strategy will increase the possibility that they will address one another by name and direct their comments to one another, not just to you.
  • Prepare open-ended questions in advance. Pose questions that will generate discussion (find evidence, consider implications, synthesize) rather than those that close off conversation (yes/no, questions with only one answer).
  • Ask students to write for a few minutes when you’ve posed a particularly thought-provoking question. Giving students time to write – and think – a response can generate more considered verbal responses and stimulate more thoughtful discussions.
  • Bring students’ outside comments into class. Talk to students during office hours, in hallways, and around campus. If they make a good comment or raise an interesting question, check with them first to see whether they are willing to raise the idea in class, then say: “Chris, you were saying something about that in office hours yesterday. Would you repeat it for the rest of the class?”

Finally, I have a few general strategies that might help your discussions:

Use Small Group Discussions to Solve Problems
One way to change the participation level is to change the structure of class so that the students are tasked with topics of discussions that involve problem solving instead of free form discussions. Many instructors have found success with break-out discussion groups that are tasked with some sort of problem. The group members must come up with possible solutions through small discussions. Then the class comes back together. Each group presents some of their ideas and the class as a whole then discusses the various proposals. For example, instead of asking a class, “So, who agrees with Madison on the proper size of a republic in Federalist #10?” Task each discussion group with specific aspects of the argument. Group A will address a question on “factions” in government. Group B will prepare an argument for the proper size of a republic. And so on and so forth. After having done so, rely and return to each group as if they were “experts” or the authority on that particular topic during the general discussion. Each group should meet for a brief period of time—ten minutes or so. Walk around and help facilitate discussion in each group. Have one person act as a scribe and record the groups’ findings. Make sure to share the findings with the class as a whole. Otherwise, such activity may be regarded as busy work.

Assign Conversational Roles in Large or Small Group Discussions.
How does this work? Students are put into groups and assigned different roles. One role you’d give a student is the “reflective analyst” who gives a summary at timed intervals of what has been discussed so far. Another role is the “scrounger” who records ideas of resources or ways something might be worked out. There’s also a devil’s advocate who expresses opinions opposite to consensus to keep group in check, a detective who listens for biases, a theme spotter, and an umpire who keeps everyone in line (see more details in Brookfield & Preskill, p. 116).

Move things (and people!) around.
Sometimes simply changing the configuration of seats can radically alter the flow of discussion in a class. If there is moveable furniture in a classroom, try shifting it around. Pay attention to the shape of arrangements, spacing (very important!), and the instructor’s position within configurations. If the seats and desks aren’t moveable, you can still ask students to get up and move around. You might assign different areas of the classroom for students to sit according to their position on a topic. As the discussion progresses, ask students to change their position as their own views shift. If new positions emerge, encourage students to find an entirely different place in the class to sit.

More resources:


Good luck.

Professor Pedagogy


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