Bueller?… Bueller?…

Students don’t see the value of regular class participation


A student extends five fingers, adorned with two silver rings—five slender fingers that barely reach past her ear. In fact, her elbow remains firmly planted on the classroom desk. Up and down her hand moves through the air—up when the professor faces her way and down when he turns his back. She plays this subtle game until the professor nods. The girl exhales and speaks. The room grows quiet: dozens of students, one raised hand, and a girl who wonders why we’ve grown quiet—why don’t students participate in class?

CCIT professor Divya Maharajh suggests that students need to be proactive about their learning. It’s easy to be “a random body in my class warming a seat for two hours,” Maharajh notes, but students should think of themselves “as individuals with ideas worth sharing”. Consistently opting out of class discussions results in a series of missed opportunities to develop solid listening, speaking, and presentation skills that are assets to any successful career.

In a journal article by Kelly Rocca titled “Student participation in the college classroom”, researchers explain that lectures with more than 40 students have less class engagement than lectures with fewer than 40. Participation should not be considered synonymous with attendance, but for most large classes, attendance is the primary evaluation used to gauge participation. Many students do not have the opportunity to enroll in smaller courses until third or fourth year—a discouraging reality that may lead students to hesitate from speaking out.

Tutorials are one outlet for students to voice their thoughts in a smaller, more intimate setting. But are students actually using this opportunity, or do they remain disengaged or plugged into their devices? In order to assess participation in small classrooms, Maharajh says she “notes when students browse on Facebook or other unrelated websites during class and generally keeps a record of students’ levels of engagement”. Hiding behind a screen or using insecurity as an excuse isn’t going to cut it outside of class, so what can be done to encourage students to use their voices?

There are no straightforward solutions, but those who squirm at the thought of raising their hand can take several small steps to build their confidence. “I often tell shy students to sit in the front of the room,” Maharajh says. “When you raise your hand to share ideas, you won’t see an entire classroom of heads turn.” Like Maharajh, many professors at UTM are willing to work with students on their participation outside of class. “I will sometimes give students a list of questions I will ask in the following lecture,” Maharajh says. “We practice how they might respond to some of the questions ahead of time and then I call on them in class to share those same rehearsed responses.”

Third-year student Fatima Zahra Hamaimou, a double major in professional writing and communication and CCIT, provides another perspective on why students may not be speaking up. “I think my willingness to participate decreases when I’m not particularly interested in the material,” she says. Instructors should aim to balance creativity with content delivery when structuring discussions and lectures, especially when it comes to unpacking difficult course concepts.

In “Revitalize classroom discussion”, another journal article, James Barton offers a few suggestions of his own. “Nothing kills a discussion faster than students’ perception that the teacher knows it all,” Barton says. Instead, professors should create a supportive environment by encouraging students to make personal connections with material, support reluctant speakers (particularly ESL students, who may have a language barrier), and lead engaging activities to test student comprehension. Barton also comments on the importance of visuals, which act as “a memory aid for students, helping them concentrate on the topic of discussion rather than struggling to remember what was said previously”.

When a student speaks, positive reinforcement from those listening promotes both current and future discussion. “My professors and classmates provide encouraging responses when I participate,” says fourth-year student Kaitlyn Saint, a double major in PWC and CCIT. “It can be as simple as agreeing with what I have to say or adding additional content that builds on my comment or question. I feel involved and it makes me want to engage with the class material more.”

“Don’t underestimate the value of solid speaking skills,” Maharajh says. Participation goes beyond the grade. Developing communication requires practice, and the university provides a relatively safe environment for that. Find an interesting article from the newspaper and bring it up in class—it can be that simple.

Be present physically, emotionally, and mentally. Discussion now will lead to success in other small interactions with peer groups, friends, and those you meet as you try to advance your career.