Participation: Why Students Don’t

student participation
It's hardly a new subject. There's plenty of research. There's lots of advice, suggestions, and possible strategies to try. But with all that, there's not much participation in a lot of courses. The percentage of students who don't participate has remained virtually the same for many years now. It's right around 50 percent in most studies (including the Kenney and Banerjee study referenced below).

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It's hardly a new subject. There's plenty of research. There's lots of advice, suggestions, and possible strategies to try. But with all that, there's not much participation in a lot of courses. The percentage of students who don't participate has remained virtually the same for many years now. It's right around 50 percent in most studies (including the Kenney and Banerjee study referenced below). Why is 50 percent not enough? Because those not talking do have ideas, information, and insights that could enrich discussion in the course. Because teachers need feedback on student levels of understanding, areas of confusion, and success in applying the content. Because students need to learn how to ask questions when they have them. And because the more students talk, the more likely they are to think about the content. Why don't students participate? Again, the research, classroom experience of many teachers, and feedback from students themselves confirm a varied set of reasons. Participation is more challenging in a large course. It is harder to get recognized, but more important, it is harder to muster the courage it takes to speak in front of so many. Students fear speaking up, especially if they're unprepared; in that case, maybe they should be reluctant to voice their opinions. But feeling unprepared is often related to feeling that they do not understand, are confused, or simply don't know enough to even venture a guess. That's different than being unprepared, but it's easy to understand how the feelings might mingle and perpetuate the reluctance to participate. The unwillingness to participate also involves the fear of disapproval, of looking foolish, of being wrong, or of making a mistake. Usually, students say first that they don't want to look foolish in front of peers and then add that they don't want to look unimpressive to the professor either. The various reasons students don't participate haven't been systematically analyzed or prioritized (as far as this editor knows), but this fear of disapproval is regularly mentioned. It was the reason students gave most when asked why they didn't participate in this study. Teachers simply must do more to help students move beyond this fear of making mistakes. Mistakes are an inherent part of learning. Most of the time they promote more learning than when the answer is right. The need for a solid repertoire of constructive ways to respond to answers that are wrong or not very good is incumbent on teachers. Of particular note in the Kenney and Banerjee study is another, albeit not frequently mentioned, reason students offered for not participating. It emerged in the survey results and from the focus group interviews. These students (at two different universities and in two very different courses) said they were not motivated to participate when teachers asked easy, obvious questions. This finding bumps right up against advice regularly appearing in the literature—namely, that teachers should ask simple, straightforward questions, ones with right answers, especially at the beginning of class when students may need to be “warmed up” to participate. The students in the study said that simple questions made them feel as if the teacher was asking questions “reflexively and not taking the students seriously” (p. 71). In other words, the teacher appeared to be asking questions because he or she thought questions should be asked, not because of a genuine interest in discussing the topics with students. When they felt that way, students said they didn't believe the teacher would take what they had to say seriously, and so they didn't participate. Not all students in this study responded to easy questions this way, but some did, so it's wise to be aware of this possible negative reaction. If the instructor communicates genuine interest in the topic and is asking questions that he or she wants to hear answers to, then the students will be motivated to engage in discussion, according to the responses of the students questioned here. An interesting inconsistency emerged in student responses. Asking them easy, obvious questions didn't motivate them to participate, but asking them opinion questions did. The reason given for liking opinion questions? They don't have right or wrong answers. But they don't want to be asked a lot of simple questions that usually do have obvious right answers. What the inconsistency underscores is the anxiety provoked by the possibility of being wrong or making a mistake. Opinion questions come with their own set of challenges. If students are unprepared, haven't done the reading, or haven't regularly been in class, then their opinions aren't likely to contribute a lot to the discussion. Their opinions may be uninformed, logically inconsistent, or even unrelated to the topic at hand, but students still hold the belief that everyone is entitled to hear their opinion nevertheless. Teachers must constructively convey that quality is an issue when it comes to opinions. Not all opinions are equal, and informed ones generally score higher than those that aren't. Research confirms what most teachers have experienced: when students do participate, it's usually not by asking a question. Teacher questions far outnumber student questions—as high as 96 percent in some studies. But there's another finding of interest in the research on participation (Edwards and Bowman, in this case). Student questions tend to mirror teacher questions. So if the teacher asks a lot of procedural, simple, recall-based questions, that's the kind of questions students will ask. But if the teacher asks more cognitive-level questions, students ask more of those questions as well. Questions play a key role in participation. As both of these studies indicate, they can be one of the many reasons students do or do not participate. Participation has great potential. It can promote learning in those who contribute and those who listen. The goal is to find ways to realize that potential more regularly. References: Kenney. J. L., & Banerjee, P. (2011). “Would someone say something, please?” Increasing student participation in college classrooms. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 22(4), 57–81. Edwards, S., & Bowman. M. A. (1996). Promoting student learning through questioning: A study of classroom questions. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 7(2), 3–24.