Getting College Students to Participate

The Challenge of Getting Students to Talk

There are a variety of reasons why students do not participate in class. By being mindful of them, an instructor can take steps to overcome those barriers and make classes more enjoyable for all.

Why Students do not speak up in Class

The first step in getting to know the students in your class is to understand why some of them do not speak up in class. This is not rocket science. You know most, if not all, of this. Put together your own list. Then see if the reasons fall into the following four categories I came up with:

  1. Fear of speaking in a group
  2. Lack of understanding of material
  3. Lack of interest in the subject
  4. Dislike for the instructor


How to Get Your Students to Talk

Let me make some suggestions relative to these four issues:

  1. Since some students are not comfortable speaking in class, begin addressing this during the first class session with an icebreaker. Also, periodically break students into pairs or small groups to discuss a topic. And don’t let a few students monopolize class discussion.
  2. You do the best you can to help your students learn, but you don’t always succeed. You may be able to get students to speak up if you ask questions that relate to their opinions and their personal experiences. For example, assume you are teaching a world history class and discussing President Truman’s decision to bomb of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Ask your students what the most difficult decision they have had to make. Or ask them if they ever made a decision that completely and irrevocably changed their future. Or ask what would be a decision they hope they never have to make.
  3. Students are required to take certain courses for their degrees, and they don’t always like those courses. There is no way around that. There are two things an instructor can do. First, make the course relevant to the students. Link material to what your students know and what they like. Second, make the class itself fun. If you run a fun class, students will be more likely to come, loosen up, and participate.
  4. There is no way around the fact that a student or two won’t like you, or is there? Some students may dislike the way you look. I don’t advise plastic surgery, liposuction, or changes to skin pigment. I think you pretty much leave the looks thing alone. Some may dislike aspects of your personality. The personality thing is also difficult to change. If you display a sarcastic nature out of class, changes are that will carry over into class. Don’t be afraid to apologize if you blurt out something comes out wrong. Some may dislike what they know about you – your likes, dislikes, beliefs, morals, prejudices, etc. Do a little soul searching. Is there anything you tend to say in class that is controversial? If there is, quit saying it. Now, wasn’t that simple. 😉

Still not confident you can get those “back row sitters” to join in? Maybe some of my other articles will help:

Why Should You Care if Students Don’t Participate?

You know why. It makes for a more pleasant learning environment. Students who participate are at ease. Students who are at ease are more open to learning. It’s as simple as that!

© 2010 Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.

Posted July 2, 2010

About Dr. Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.

My name is Paul Hummel, and I often introduce myself to others as a recovering engineer. If you are familiar with the Dilbert cartoons, let me simply say that I lived all of that. I started my college saga at Illinois Institute of Technology. Eventually, I earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering and a Master’s Degree in Engineering Management. I worked for many years in industry, and during this time I did some college adjunct teaching. During my career I held several managerial positions in industry, the last as Director of Technology of a division of a Fortune 500 corporation. Then, in 1996, with minimal planning or forethought, I found myself working as a manufacturing consultant on behalf of Elgin Community College (ECC).

My career in higher education began to take shape. I fell in love with ECC and with the mission of community colleges in general. I worked fulltime and occasionally taught college courses for my institution and two other colleges. After a couple years I set a goal to move over to the “credit side of the college” and eventually become a college administrator. In 2006, having earned my doctorate in education, I achieved that goal. I was hired by Waubonsee Community College as Dean for Technology, Mathematics and Physical Sciences.

I have had the great fortune of working at two excellent colleges. The insights I want to share are drawn from the various college positions I have held. At ECC, in addition to my consulting role, I coordinated non-credit professional development training programs for three years and spent four years advising students in the TRiO Student Support Services program. That position helped me understand college education from the perspective of today’s college students.

After seven years at Waubonsee, I retired April 30, 2013. I now devote my knowledge and skills to upgrading and expanding the websites I created beginning with Adjunct Assistance. I have three other websites: College Teaching Tips, Keys for College Success and Lighthouse for Learning. A lot of work lies ahead for me in terms of upgrading and expanding each of these websites, but I could not be more excited about fulfilling the vision I have for helping college instructors and their students succeed.


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