Encouraging Student Participation in Classroom Discussion

When my high school music appreciation class entered the room they were a talkative bunch. They were energetic and wanted to share with their peers anything and everything that had happened during the prior six periods of the day. Once the bell rang and we started exploring content, there was hear-the-chirping-cricket-in-the-corner silence. I felt I had to practically beg them to become involved in our dialog. 

I wish I had the book Amplify Student Voices: Equitable Practices to Build Confidence in the Classroom then. In the book, authors AnnMarie Baines, Diana Medina, and Caitlin Healy provide the following four elements that will help encourage students to participate (pp.50-51):

  1. Open-ended language. The questions I had asked in my music appreciation course were those that led to right or wrong answers. Open-ended questions indicate that we don’t have a particular response in mind and invite sharing of thoughts.
  2. Clear questions. I absolutely loved my content and could ask the kinds of questions that would have made my professors proud. Unfortunately, such vague, pie-in-the-sky thinking in my classroom didn’t result in discussion. Clarity is king in question development if you actually want students to participate. 
  3. Immediate validation. I regretfully admit that many student responses in my music appreciation class received little to no acknowledgement as we moved quickly through content. Listening carefully, acknowledging the point that students make, and finding ways to appreciate the effort are critically important if we want students to participate in our classroom discussions. Find ways to validate them.
  4. Synthesis and transitions. If you were to ask my music students from that course if we tied up all the loose ends to make sense of it all, they would tell you I didn’t do well with that. When you help students make sense of all the ideas and move them forward in a logical manner that connects the content pieces, you are setting them up for successful dialog. 

As you prepare for next week, think about how you might incorporate these elements into your own classroom. You and your students will be glad you did!

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