Does Participation Promote Engagement?

Most teachers would answer yes. It's one of the reasons they want students to participate. Whether they're paying attention because the teacher may call on them, or whether the questions and answers being exchanged have piqued their interest, participation keeps students engaged.

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Most teachers would answer yes. It's one of the reasons they want students to participate. Whether they're paying attention because the teacher may call on them, or whether the questions and answers being exchanged have piqued their interest, participation keeps students engaged.

Communication education researchers Frymier and Houser point out those assumptions are prevalent not just among teachers, but within the literature as well. “A close reading of the literature on student participation reveals the assumption that students who orally participate in class are engaged in learning, and quiet students are less so” (p. 83). They report the results of two studies that challenge these widely held assumptions. The problem begins with how participation and engagement are used pretty much interchangeably. Frymier and Houser contend they are not equivalent constructs. “Participation is a component of engagement, while engagement is a multidimensional construct encompassing several student characteristics and behaviors” (p. 84). The research questions raised by the participation-engagement relationship are straightforward (p. 84): “Is oral participation really an indicator of engagement? Can quiet students be engaged?”

This survey research involved 674 students in the first study and 414 in the second. These students answered questions about the instructor and course they'd had immediately preceding the communication course during which the data were collected, which meant students were answering about a wide variety of instructors and across a range of disciplines. Both study designs are complex, involving measures of participation, communication apprehension, motivation to study, indicators of learning, engagement, and instructor nonverbal immediacy. All of these measures were empirically developed and had been used extensively in other research. In the second study, the participation measure was modified and a measure of classroom nonverbal attentiveness was developed. Data analysis methods are fully explained in the article.

As for findings, here's the most important one: “Study Two confirmed the first study; at best there is a slight relationship between oral participation and engagement…The correlations were small, leading us to conclude that oral participation is not a good indicator of engagement” (p. 99).

There were also some findings of interest related to grading participation, starting with the fact that in Study One, students reported it was graded in 57 percent of their courses and not graded in 43 percent of the courses. When it was graded, students reported that they participated more. And participation was associated with motivation to study and learning indicators. “Perhaps engaging in oral participation makes students feel like they are learning more; certainly students are told over and over that participation is the hallmark of a good student” (p. 92). However, the lack of connection between participation and engagement contains some indication that students are simply complying with teacher expectations. If the teacher expects them to speak, students “will find something to say during class” (p. 92). Moreover, participation was negatively correlated with communication apprehension, meaning anxious students reported participating less. “Oral participation is likely beneficial for students who have low CA (communication apprehension) and higher levels of willingness to communicate” (p. 100).

The second study revealed an alternative way of encouraging participation independent of grading it. Studied at length in the communication education field, teacher nonverbal immediacy has been consistently found to be positively associated with a number of different student outcomes. When teachers smile, establish eye contact with students, and move comfortably around the classroom space, the motivation for learning increases. In this case, “immediate teaching likely invites interaction and creates a more pleasant classroom climate than does tracking and grading participation” (p. 99). In these inviting classroom climates, students are more likely to communicate because they want to, rather than because they have to. In this research, instructor nonverbal immediacy was positively associated with student nonverbal attentiveness and oral participation.

Finally, this research documented that something other than participation was positively related to engagement: nonverbal attentiveness. As operationally defined by the measure developed for this research, nonverbal attentiveness included these items, among others: giving people complete attention when they are speaking, maintaining eye contact with people who are speaking in class, and responding nonverbally with head nods and facial expressions. “If instructors are trying to gauge the level of student engagement, the results of this study indicate they should rely more on students' nonverbal behaviors than their oral behaviors” (p. 99). There's another important implication here as well. Silent students are not always disengaged. Those who are listening may be learning even more than those who are speaking.

“The results of these studies challenge the long-held assumption that oral participation is unquestionably a good thing. It also suggests instructors need to rethink their grading of oral participation. If participation is the desired outcome, there may be other ways to encourage it” (p. 101).

Frymier, A. B., and Houser, M. L., (2016). The role of oral participation in student engagement. Communication Education, 65 (1), 83–104.