How Important is it for Your Students to Participate in Class Discussions?


Getting students to actively participate in class discussions can be a challenge - but one that is worth our time. If we want to guarantee their success, we must get them involved - here's why.

Class Discussion: How Important is Active Student Participation?

Does it really matter if students actively participate in class discussion? According to Maryellen Weimer, Ph.D. Professor Emerita, Penn State Berks, it does. Getting students to open up and engage offers a slew of benefits, including:

  • Adding interest to the topic
  • Reinforcing learning
  • Providing instructor feedback
  • Letting students know they're on the right track

By encouraging active participation, we make learning easier and get students to think about the lesson - and themselves - in a new way.

Getting Students to Open Up

The University of Pittsburg agrees, stating that getting students to open up early in the term makes it easier for them to continue that trend throughout the year. In other words, if we start them out with open class discussions and get them involved from the beginning, they're more likely to stay with us throughout the course. But how can we do that when we are, more often than not, faced with a room full of terrified pupils who fear raising their hands and looking foolish?

Class Discussion

Pitt offers some suggestions:

  • Make discussion accessible - Students should feel comfortable being heard.
  • Create a cordial, friendly atmosphere - Hostility is not welcome. Students need to learn to discuss differing opinions in a civil way.
  • Provide a goal - There should be a direction to the discussion. What are you trying to accomplish?
  • Invite participation - Don't allow a few voices to dominate the discussion.

By providing guidelines and drawing more reticent students into the discussion, we can help them to feel more comfortable speaking out in class.

Academic Benefits

It's easy to see how open, active discussion helps us as teachers. When we engage our students in classroom discussion, we learn whether the information we've chosen to impart is hitting the mark. It also helps us to see which of our students are 'getting it' and which need more attention.

Outdoor Class

As Elon University shares, there are plenty of academic benefits to the student as well:

  • It helps students explore topics
  • Students learn to recognize and investigate assumptions
  • It helps students integrate information
  • Discussion increases intellectual agility

In other words, open, active discussions help students learn to think on their feet while absorbing new information and ideas.

Teach Students to Speak - and Listen

While the benefits to student achievement are many, the advantages go beyond the academic.

Students who participate in guided classroom discussions learn essential life skills as well, including the importance of active listening. Too often we listen only to reply, waiting our turn at the mic so we can say our piece. By creating an atmosphere of understanding and encouraging students to listen with the goal of understanding, we can improve their communication skills.

One way we might pursue this is:

  • Ask the students a question about the current lesson.
  • Give them 5-10 seconds to consider.
  • Allow students to respond. If no volunteers raise their hands, choose a student to respond (try to pick someone who is typically quiet).
  • Praise the student for speaking up.
  • Ask the class to consider the student's response; what do they think it means? Discourage them from judging the worth of the response. This time is for thinking about what the student has said, not judging it.
  • Use student responses to guide the discussion, allowing it to flow naturally as their understanding grows.

Teaching our students to think about the information they're receiving, rather than just what they want to say about it, gives them the opportunity to consider the perspectives of others.

Important Practice for the Future

There is another important benefit to participating in class discussions - speaking up in class helps students to practice their public speaking skills.

Public Speaking

For many professionals, delivering information to a group - either in a speech, presentation, or interview - must be done verbally. While you can certainly read about this skill and get a good idea of how it works from a book, the only way to perfect it is to do it.

Students who speak out during class and actively participate in an open discussion with their peers get ample opportunity to practice and refine this skill in a safe environment that will not impact their professional livelihood.

Teachers as Facilitators

For students to feel free to speak up, it is important for teachers to act as facilitators, particularly in their early years when the fear of failure is high. While they will sometimes stumble - also an important part of the learning process - we can soften the experience and encourage them to try with a few simple strategies as suggested by Washington University in St. Louis:

  • Provide the topic in advance. Give students a chance to think about how they will respond.
  • Organize the Classroom. Place desks so that the students can see one another for easier interaction.
  • Avoid Interrupting. When student ideas are cut off, it ends the discussion. Avoid the temptation to interrupt or answer your own question unless essential.
  • Clarify responses. Repeat student responses and clarify answers. This repetition ensures they understand the material and that their peers got the message too.
  • Emphasize student ideas. Your ideas are important, and you know your stuff, but the goal of student discussions isn't to demonstrate that - it's to spotlight their ideas and increase their knowledge. You take a backseat here.

By acting as a guide, not a lecturer, students learn their ideas matter. In short, we teach them to think while providing them the tools they need to consider the information they're receiving in an open, respectful environment.

Wouldn't it be great if everyone did that?

By Patricia Willis
January 2018
teachers engaging students

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