When you teach a class or lead a discussion, participation is often easy for some people and hard for others.
People who find participation easy will tend to talk a lot and ask a lot of questions. They can really easily fill up all the space with their confidence and their speech. This can result in people who struggle to participate feeling like they have no way to say anything. (This is not necessarily anyone’s fault.)
It is possible to create space for them in several ways. They all start from presuming competence. Specifically - start from the presumption that people who aren’t participating have worthwhile things to say, and
They also start by paying attention to who is and isn’t participating. If you notice whose voices are absent, it becomes easier to find ways to include them.
It can help to call on people specifically when you notice they’re not saying things, in a low-pressure way:
- Say you notice that Susan hasn’t said anything in the discussion
- You can say, “Susan, would you like to add something?” or
- “Susan, what do you think?”
- If you’re not asking for an answer to a particular question, and you ask in a non-demanding tone, this can be a good way to give people a chance to talk
- Particularly if you wait a few seconds after asking, and take no for an answer (whether it’s a stated no or an implied no)
It can help to ask in a more general way:
- Sometimes the conversation is dominated by a few people
- You can often address this by saying something like
- “Would anyone who has not said anything yet like to say something?” or
- “I’d like to hear from people who haven’t spoken.”
- This lets people who aren’t speaking up know that you care about what they have to say without putting individual pressure on anyone
- It also lets people who are taking up the space know that you’d like to make sure you hear from everyone
It helps to be available through email:
- Some people who care deeply about the subject and want to participate aren’t able to do so in real time
- If they are better at using email, being available by email will make it possible for them to participate
- (It might also make it easier for them to tell you about barriers to their participation)
People who teach: What have y’all seen work well for people who want to participate but find it difficult?
People who find it difficult to participate: What have teachers done that made it easier for you? What made it harder?
As both someone who has (a very small amount of) experience teaching & who is also a quieter person / slower processer in class, I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about this. for me as a student, my lack of participation stems from two things: 1) not being confident, and 2) processing slowly, and i think those two things have different solutions.
- re: the first set of suggestions. I think calling on people individually only helps if it is definitely a VERY low pressure situation. otherwise, it is very stressful to me when i am not expecting to be called on and don’t have a fully formed idea yet, as a slower processer. and as someone who is at times not sure of my answer, it can put a lot of pressure on me to have a ‘good’ answer in front of everyone.
- for the second set of suggestions: I have been in classes when a teacher tries to get quieter folks to participate by addressing the whole class with a blanket “anybody else?” type statement. I agree that this does let students know that you care about everyone participating, and can help those who aren’t as good at interrupting others / jumping into the middle of a discussion participate. for slower processers, however, this often does not actually help me as a student process any faster if I am not ready to speak and can be frustrating as I feel like I’ve ‘wasted’ my chance to participate by not being ready. As a teacher I have found that instead, having students write down their thoughts/questions first for a few minutes, before allowing anyone to speak, lets those slower processers work out what they want to say first and often results in them speaking more. This can also be done with pair-shares, where students partner / group up and discuss in smaller groups before having to speak in front of the whole class.
- I really like the third set of suggestions for email. it’s definitely an easier way to communicate for many folks and lets people have time to think of new ideas. making it clear that you welcome additional thoughts by email is helpful, as students may not know they can participate that way.
Also, a professor once talked to me for a long time about how important she thought it was that I asked questions of people in class, rather than just spewing out pretentious, ‘perfect’-sounding ideas of my own. This conversation meant a lot to me. Making it clear to students that asking a question or not being sure of something is an equally valid way of participating can also help make the space more equitable.
Thank you for that. There are a lot of things in there that I need to think about.
I particularly like the suggestion to give people time to process their questions before opening up for group conversation.
One thing I want to add now: If you count class participation as part of the grade, you should count on-topic emails after class as participation. Because that’s as much participation as speaking up in class is.