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Class Participation: 6 Expert Tips to Grab—and Hold—Students’ Attention

Ten Course Hero educator partners share 6 ways they encourage class participation by engaging and energizing college students—starting on day one of class.

class participation

For many educators, a stone-faced, tight-lipped audience—or worse yet, students staring off into space—is the stuff that nightmares are made of. Yet this scene is not uncommon, even when the subject matter is exciting and relevant, the classroom environment is inviting, and the course meets at a friendly hour (not 8 a.m. or late at night). Still, it is certainly not something to be left well enough alone.

Class participation is widely accepted as important to student learning. In fact, many educators make it part of their grading expectations. And many universities are mandating the use of active learning strategies that get students interacting with their professors and with each other. Yet a whole host of factors, including shyness, under-preparation, and classroom dynamics, can hold students back from participating in class.

Here, 10 Course Hero educator partners share their strategies for enlivening the classroom by laying the groundwork for participation.

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1. Grab their attention with a pre-class prank

While some students would prefer to sit back and let others do the talking in class, Liz Milan, MBA, adjunct business instructor at the University of Portland, believes students can be habituated to take an active rather than passive stance in the classroom.

Milan does this by emailing her students a class honor code contract through DocuSign before the first day of class. The document contains several requirements that students agree to by e-signing it. Some of them are reasonable, but some are outlandish, such as a mandate that students write course assignments in iambic pentameter.

“Some of the things I ask in the honor code are things that an instructor cannot legally ask of a student,” Milan explains. “I intend that as a reminder to students that they need to read their contracts before they sign them.” Executing this pre-class prank at the semester’s start helps Milan make the point that students had better be on their toes when they are in her classroom, too.

2. Use gamification to build interest (and trust)

Often students are reluctant to participate in class simply because they do not feel safe doing so. “Students have to trust each other before they will feel comfortable opening up to receive feedback and sharing a vulnerable part of themselves,” explains Stephanie Speicher, PhD, assistant professor of teacher education at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah. To build a sense of community, Speicher uses experiential group activities inside the classroom and out. Taking students hiking, rock climbing, or paddling in a reservoir (as she does) may not be an option for everyone, but indoor team-building exercises such as Traffic Jam (which she also uses) can have a similar effect. As students engage in cooperation, teamwork, and problem-solving, they begin to build relationships that make class participation an easier ask.

In a similar exercise, Ray Faulkenberry, PhD, adjunct professor of psychology at Diablo Valley College, uses the childhood game Simon Says to build trust among students. As the game progresses, Faulkenberry picks up speed. “They start getting better, and we go faster—and they need to self-judge,” he says. “I remind them that if they twitch and don’t go down (meaning they’re not playing fairly), I will wait a few seconds for their integrity (doing something right when no one’s looking) to kick in. If they don’t heed it, that person’s whole row is eliminated.” While students are certainly having fun, Faulkenberry is also setting the stage for integrity in class discussions.

3. Use humor, especially in tough classes

It is no surprise that laughter can encourage class participation: It is not easy to keep a straight face when the professor is assuming the role of comedian. That is why Susan Loesch, MSN, nursing professor at Jersey College in Ewing, New Jersey, uses jokes and puns, some of which she concocts ahead of time and others that she improvises on the spot. These enliven her lectures and make her more approachable. “I want to break that wall between teacher and students and relate to them. Humor does that,” she says.

Fortunately for less jokey educators, it is not necessary to deliver jokes to teach with humor. Kent D. Kauffman, JD, associate professor of business law at Purdue University in Fort Wayne, Indiana, uses funny video clips to punctuate class periods with levity. He extracts relevant scenes from humorous movies such as Liar Liar, Lord of War, or The Hudsucker Proxy that were big box-office hits. The approach works especially well at encouraging engagement and class participation in evening classes, which many students attend after a full day of work. “It’s all about creating emotional intensity with regard to learning,” he says. “With humor and suspense and wonder and laughter.”

4. Have groups work on whiteboards, not tables

Students cannot hide behind their desks if the desks are gone. So Isadora Grevan, PhD, assistant professor of Spanish and Portuguese studies at Rutgers University-Newark in New Jersey, shoves desks and chairs to the sides of the room when students are participating in group work. Rather than talking at a shared table, Grevan has students move around the room, using a series of whiteboard stations to write down the quotations they have extracted from assigned readings. This helps them to see the applications of their prior active-reading work and to think, literally on their feet. Every few minutes, the groups shift to the next board, reading others’ answers. This takes class participation to the extreme, as she encourages them to identify how their reading applies to their own lives and even draw pictures of their impressions. Their minds and bodies are equally active as they circle the room.

5. Have the class participate in role-play

Leonor Cabrera, MBA, dean of Business, Design & Workforce at Cañada College in Redwood City, California, teaches her human resource students the soft skills they need to work effectively through role-playing scenarios. “It’s easy to read about someone who [reported] being sexually harassed. It’s another thing to face a person who is crying and telling you how the issue is affecting his or her personal life,” she says. In these activities, Cabrera has students play the part of HR representative while she acts as the distressed employee.

Some professors achieve this real-world impact by taking students outside of the classroom. Karla Hopkins, MSN, MHN, RN-BC, instructor of nursing at Galen College of Nursing in Louisville, Kentucky, leads students into a room that looks like an emergency medical facility, in which they act out a patient-assessment scenario. “We [teachers] really go all out,” she says. “We put on makeup that looks like bruises, dress like a patient who may not have showered in a week, and ‘act up,’ maybe by stealing a sharp object from the room that could be dangerous to everyone.” This approach does more than encourage (and require) participation. “[It] is usually the first time students have real-life experience handling a difficult or hard-to-understand patient.”

6. Give them a GPA incentive

For some students, the greatest motivator is their grade. James Plečnik, PhD, CPA, assistant professor of accounting at Loyola Marymount University–Los Angeles, keeps students intent on his lecture with daily “modified quiz experiences.” After a brief lecture, he works with his students on sample problems that draw on what they just learned. Then he administers an in-class quiz, which should be a breeze if they have been paying attention. As added incentive, if students complete the problems correctly, Plečnik lets them leave class early.

Edward B. Burger, PhD, president of Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, also uses participation grades to incentivize engagement in his University Studies course, Effective Thinking Through Creative Puzzle-Solving. Rather than asking students questions to keep them engaged, he solicits questions from the students—a strategy he says can work in any course. To do this, he designates one student to act as “official questioner,” formulating one or more questions to pose to him before the class period ends. These can be fundamental questions (focusing on the nuts and bolts of a concept), meta-questions (exploring the larger meanings of course content), or connecting questions (that help students understand how the day’s lesson can apply to other courses).

This approach needs to be adapted a bit for stadium-size courses, he notes. “If you pick two or three questioners, the rest of the students will check out or simply go to sleep,” he says. In these large classes, he stops the lecture at various points and has students work in teams of two or three to create two questions per group. “Then I just pick people from the audience,” he says. Not only is everyone participating at this point, it sets the stage for a class discussion. Having just engaged in a micro-discussion in their group, this can make it easier for even the quietest students to have something to say.

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