An instructor’s role in the classroom is to create a learning environment in which all students have the opportunity to voice their ideas, engage with the course content, and interact with their peers. But encouraging student participation, especially among a diverse student body, can be difficult.

To cultivate engagement, begin by thinking about how to build an inclusive learning environment and how you want your students to understand the concept of “participation.” Next, focus on empowering quieter students and using your creativity to get all of your students enthusiastic about participating.

Create an Inclusive Environment

Every instructor’s first priority should be to ensure that all students feel valued and welcome in the classroom. Making sure everyone in the class knows each other’s names, can pronounce them correctly, and is using the proper pronouns forms a strong foundation for building an inclusive learning environment. One of my favourite methods is to give students an impromptu “names quiz” at the start of the third week. Each student writes down as many names of their classmates as they can remember and the person with the longest list gets a prize!

It also helps to think through the physical set-up of your classroom. When possible, have students sit in a circle to facilitate group discussion. It is also good practice to change your spot in the circle from week to week. Doing so will prevent any “head” of the class from forming and so will encourage students to engage equally with all members of the circle, rather than filtering discussion through the instructor.

Broaden What “Participation” Means

Often students assume that the highest participation grades go to the loudest and most outgoing students. But this should rarely be the case. Make sure students understand that “participation” encompasses a wide range of student behaviour including listening attentively to their instructor and peers, asking questions, attending office hours, and coming to class prepared and on time. For this reason, some instructors prefer to use terms like “citizenship” or “studentship,” rather than “participation” as an evaluative category.

It’s also important for instructors to create varied opportunities for students to engage with their peers. Having students work on a task or discuss a set of questions in partners or small groups creates a different dynamic and empowers those students who feel less comfortable speaking up in a larger group. Many instructors also utilize online discussion boards as an alternative or complement to in-class participation.

Create Opportunities for Quieter Students

Educators often debate the merits of “cold-calling,” the practice of calling on a particular student rather than those who volunteer by raising their hands. Those in favour find this method helps individuals who have a difficult time naturally breaking into the conversation. But those against fear that putting students on the spot creates unnecessary anxiety for shyer students. One form of compromise is to give students advanced warning and time to prepare responses before calling on them. For instance, during group work, tell quieter students that in a few moments, you will ask them to summarize their group’s discussion for the class. Another option is to give students a moment to write down one or two of their thoughts before calling on anyone to respond.

In some cases, students may simply be unable or unwilling to verbally participate in the classroom. Offering other options, like a reflective journal or additional writing assignments, are great alternatives for students to share their ideas and engage with the course content. If unsure, you should reach out to your campus’s accessibility and/or learning centres to discuss best practices in such situations.

Add an Element of Fun

Using play-based methods to create an element of spontaneity in the classroom is a wonderful way to ease tensions and encourage student enthusiasm about participation. Some instructors will ask a question and then have students toss around an object, like a beach ball. Each person who catches it has to share an opinion before tossing it to someone new. Another option is to write students names on popsicle sticks and place them in a jar. Call on students by picking a popsicle stick at random and reading the name on it. These methods add an air of anticipation and excitement, while also offering equal opportunity for all students to participate.