In general, our writing classes are discussion classes, and students are expected to participate in active class exchanges. Sometimes, faculty may feel frustrated if discussions are slow to get started, or if students don’t speak up. This page compiles selected strategies for effectively facilitating class participation from all students. Scaffolding up front in order to build class rapport and establish clear guidelines is crucial; many of the suggestions below are for activities that can be done early in the semester. At the same time, flexibility may be necessary if certain texts or topics become unexpected points of contention.
Students will be more likely to participate throughout the semester if they have some agency early on about what participation entails.
- Make it clear to students early in the semester that participation can take many forms: answering questions, asking questions, active listening, diligent participation in peer workshops, small group activities, etc.
- Ask students how they prefer to participate: it’s instructive for instructors, and it also helps students to develop metacognitive awareness about their own learning styles. This could be built into a self-assessment.
- During the first week of class, ask students three key questions. Students can prepare answers as part of a first-day survey or for homework, then share these answers to collaborate on participation guidelines for the class.
- What can you do to help yourself participate in class discussions?
- What can your peers do to encourage your participation?
- What can your instructor do to encourage your participation?
- Participation guidelines can be used as a touchstone throughout the semester (e.g., in mid-semester check-in on the class and student’s own participation, as a way to set goals for the remaining semester).
- Students can consider their own identities and experiences using a privilege wheel. This can help students reflect on where they can speak from a place of authenticity or authority based on their identities and experiences, and where they need to step back and listen to others who have different identities and experiences. This could also be developed into a Self-Assessment prompt that informs participation guidelines and norms.
- Ask students to consider the difference between attending class and showing up for class. If students exceed the allowed number of absences or seem distracted during class, they could propose a make-up activity: something that demonstrates their engagement with the material from that day, or that can serve as a resource for their fellow students.
Establish Pronouns and Names
Establishing student and instructor pronouns and names normalizes the practice of providing these and creates a culture of respect.
- Include your pronouns on the syllabus and in your email signature, as well as a statement about pronouns on the syllabus. Introduce yourself using your pronouns on the first day of class. If online, edit your ID on Zoom so that they display with your name.
- Don’t automatically go by the names given on the university-generated class roster, which might result in deadnaming students. On the first day of class or in a survey, ask students what name they want to be called in your class, to indicate that you will call them what they want, not what’s on the roster. However, also be sensitive to the pressures that some students, particularly but not exclusively international students, might feel to use an “easier” name in place of their given name; reassure students that their name is not “too hard” for you, and pronouncing it properly is important to you.
- When students introduce themselves to the class, have them indicate name and (encourage including) pronouns. Setting 10 minutes aside to do this during the first 2-3 classes sets the expectation that students will learn and use one anothers’ names and correct pronouns as a sign of respect. One simple exercise is to have students sit in a circle (so they can see one another) and share their names/pronouns, then have each successive student repeat the names of all students before them. By the time it’s the last person’s turn (this should be the instructor), students have heard most names several times. In a subsequent class, encourage students to sit in different spots and repeat the exercise.
- Encourage students to tell you one-on-one if they are not comfortable sharing their pronouns with the class, for instance in a class survey conducted via Google Form that only the instructor will see.
Encourage Active Participation
- Activate students’ background knowledge before discussions.
- At times this might mean giving students a two-minute contextualized introduction to a text and its origin, reception, and other relevant details.
- At other times, you might encourage students to Google the author, look up textual references in Wikipedia, etc., on their own or in small groups, so that they are better able to think about what they (now) know about the text, author, or issue at hand.
- Be deliberate in your formation of questions. Think about what kind of question you want to ask. In general, ask open-ended questions (not yes/no questions, but also not overly vague questions) that will encourage a wide variety of responses. Avoid the “fishing” or “guess-what’s-in-my-head” type of question.
- Allow time for students to answer the questions you pose:
- Use longer (three-second) wait times after you ask a question before you call on a student to respond. These longer wait times generate significantly more, and more inclusive, participation.
- At times, you might give students a few minutes to write individually about a question you ask before discussing.
- Use reading journals, online comments, shared annotations of readings, and/or discussion threads before class. Instructors can indicate questions to guide reading, then have students respond in a reading journal (a notebook or Google Doc, either private or shared with the instructor/class) or on a Blackboard/WordPress thread. Students come to class prepared to talk about at least what they’ve written on.
- Cooperative learning/discussion activities like putting students in pairs before they share with the class or in a jigsaw formation can relieve some of the pressure students feel when instructors pose questions to the whole class. Jigsaws can work in different ways, but all allow students to be more active in small group settings: assign students different readings entirely or different questions on the same reading, then put students into small groups to discuss with others who worked on the same text/topic. Then, reform groups for students to share those ideas with others who had a different text/topic.
- Give students a focus for the day, by putting a “word of the day” on the board at the start of class. This word can be used as inspiration for a free-write, as a concept to build discussion around, as something to return to at the end of class.
Active listening is also a crucial part of participation.
- Consider having students create a Listening Log:
- Leave time at the end of class for students to note 1-2 things they’ll take away/keep thinking about. This is also a way to use the last few minutes of class, when students might otherwise by packing up.
- Quieter students could be given an opportunity to expand on something in their log, as a way of demonstrating their participation.
- Create an ongoing record of class discussion by designating a different note-taker for each class and contributing to a shared document.
Have students do some brief reflective writing after discussions to help you gauge their responses to discussions/texts.
Navigate Discomfort and Offense
Some discomfort is a part of learning, but students should not feel unsafe. Here are some ideas for navigating potentially offensive or triggering content, including the problematic things that students themselves say during discussion.
- Consider using trigger/content warnings in a thoughtful way. It’s worth asking students early on, in an open-ended way, if there is anything they may need a trigger warning for. This enables students to share what may be troubling for them and faculty to set the tone for future conversations. This is best done via a Google survey so students can share this information privately.
- It’s also valuable to incorporate exercises that help students to reflect on the emotional impact of challenging texts, especially since those emotions will vary depending on students’ unique identities and experiences.
- If a student says something that you know is offensive or problematic, pause the class and interrogate the comment/belief, rather than attack the student. Some instructors may feel comfortable telling students that certain words are off-limits; others may prefer to engage the class in a dialogue about the words they’re using or the beliefs they’re endorsing or even the context in which the usage may be occurring (e.g., students who don’t speak English as a first language using articles that other– “the Blacks”). Possible questions include:
- What does this word mean?
- Where does this belief come from?
- What words aren’t we comfortable hearing in this class?
- If a course text contains challenging ideas or problematic language, ask students to journal privately before discussing together:
- What was reading this scene/passage like for you?
- How did you feel when you heard this [homophobic/sexist/racist] language?
- Why do you think the author included this language/passage/scene in the text?
- Consider showing students, early in the semester, this five-minute video by Ta-Nehisi Coates, “When Every Word Doesn’t Belong to Everyone”; it’s very helpful to view and discuss with students before engaging course content with problematic/offensive language.
- CTL Guide to Discussion-Based Teaching & Learning
- Tufts “Faculty Focus” Diversity & Inclusion Report
- The Art of Effective Facilitation: Reflections from Social Justice Educators, ed. Lisa M. Landreman. See especially Chapter 8 on “Brave Spaces.”
- Liberating structures: Including and unleashing everyone, based on Lipmanowicz, H., and McCandless, K. (2013). The surprising power of liberating structures. New York: Liberating Structures Press.