10 Strategies to Equitably Increase Student Engagement in Classroom Discussions
In an ideal classroom discussion, everyone participates. In many real discussions, only a few students participate. The challenge is, how do you get from the real to the ideal? The ten activities in this post are designed to bridge that gap!
10 Classroom Discussion Strategies
One of the challenges with classroom discussions is that they are often not structured to allow the participation of all students. A lot of times questions come rapid fire and students who are learning English or have slower processing times are still coming up with their answers while others shout out their answers. Other times, teachers’ own biases creep into who gets called on. I did a formal observation of a middle school science teacher once who was rocking all of the items on my observation protocol. Everything seemed great… until the end of my observation when my colleague leaned over and asked if I had noticed anything. I was like…nope? My colleague then told me to keep on watching and look at who got called on. Turned out, the science teacher never called on a girl. Literally never. Never once in any of my colleague’s observations had the teacher ever called on a girl. There are a lot of problems with that– and that teacher was way more extreme than most of us– but we all have students we tend to call on and those we don’t. The strategies here aren’t rocket science, and some are kind of questionable (people have lots of feelings on popcorn!), but each can help either ensure you call on more students or give more students chances to come up with a response before you move on.
After you have asked an easy question, pause 3-5 students before calling on anyone. After a harder question, wait at least 4-6 seconds. This allows English Learners and students who process oral information more slowly time to think of a response. Then add a pause after the student’s response for other students to think about what they said. While it sounds easy, teachers frequently think they are waiting longer than they are—so use a timer after you ask a question to ensure that you don’t miss out on hearing from all your students. To learn more, and see the research behind it, check out this handout from the IRIS Center!
Think, pair, share is a way to increase classroom participation. If a teacher just asks a question to the whole class, typically only a few hands go up. Students need different amounts of time to process information and formulate responses. Think, pair, shares give them that.
The way that it works is that you ask a question. Then you give students at least thirty seconds to think about their answer silently. When the time is up, they turn to a partner and take turns sharing their ideas. Typically, I give students a bit less than a minute each to share. Then you have the pairs share out. There are multiple ways to have pairs share out. You can have them just share to a larger group of four students (and then if you want those four share to a group of eight and so on), you can have each pair share out to the whole class (but this is SLOW), or you can just call on a few pairs to share.
Note that there is some really interesting research on the share part of think, pair, share. Basically, a lot of teachers make everyone share or randomly pick folks to share and that can increase anxiety and also take away from teaching. This biology professor came up with a bunch of cool alternatives for structuring the share. They include, during the pair part, asking a few students if they would be comfortable sharing so kids are prepped. They also include teachers summarizing what they heard, polling students on what they discussed, having students share with another group and not the whole class, or having students write quick notes on what came up during their share that can be reviewed later.
Write, Pair, Share is a modification of Think, Pair, Share. Instead of having students think silently before pairing them, you have students take a minute to quickly write down their thoughts on a topic. Then they turn and talk to a partner. At the end, they share out to the group. This activity gives all students time to reflect on the question and their response before having to discuss it.
This is a fun variation of a think pair share. Students take time to collect their thoughts on a topic and pair up. Then when it comes time to share, you ask for students to share what their partner said if they thought it was interesting/helpful. This gets students out of sharing their own thoughts (which can be hard for some kids) and gives them the less challenging task of sharing something cool a classmate said.
In this variation of think pair share, after the pairing, students move into a new pairing. This allows students to hear from a variety of students without ever creating the pressure of a whole group sharing– and gets more students engaged.
This is a variation of write, pair, share… except it stops with the writing. Students have one minute (or two or whatever) to write their thoughts on a topic. Then, you collect them or ask students to share. Like wait time, it gives students a chance to think about the topic and equalizes participation. It doesn’t matter, tbh, if they write– the purpose is to give them time to think and some will use it to write a ton (yay!) and some will spend the whole time thinking about what they might write. In either case, the student will be better prepared to participate in the classroom discussion.
This is a variation of one minute papers. Instead of having students write, you ask them to draw an illustration to explain something you have been discussing. You can have students share their images– or just use it to prepare students to discuss. The point is that it gets the weaker writers, who might be the better artists, to showcase their strengths and might motivate them to participate in the whole class discussion!
This one also comes from this cool guide from USF. The teacher teaches something, says ok– and then students turn to a partner and need to try to reteach the same concept. It gets students processing the information actively and also is likely to make it really clear to students what they don’t understand! Then students can share their group confusions, which is lower risk than saying that they as an individual didn’t get it.
If you want to hear from all of your students a solid alternative to popsicle sticks is choral responses. You can have students repeat after you (great for vocabulary practice or facts practice), have them reading chorally, or ask them a problem and have them answer chorally. For the last one, you will know real quick how many students get it– if you hear two voices, your lesson probably needs a reteach! The point is to take the pressure off of any one student and to get as many students as possible actively engaged in your teaching.
This has lots of different names. Basically, this is any system that you use to reduce implicit bias in who you call on. Lots of teachers put students’ names on popsicle sticks and pull out a popsicle stick whenever they ask a question. The student whose name is on the popsicle stick has to answer the question. Other teachers put students’ names on sheets of paper—but the idea is the same. You can also pass the ball around or have students choose who goes next. The goal is to randomize who you call on and to make sure that everyone’s voice in the class is heard, not just that of the most vocal students. Note that people have mixed feelings on this because cold calling can really stress students out. If you are going to do it (and I think there are a lot of good reasons to use cold calling strategies!), think about how to make it lower anxiety for the shy students or the students who just don’t want to say something wrong in front of their peers. Note that researchers have found that this is a really bad thing to do for reading out loud (umm, yeah), but still could be useful for other parts of a class discussion! Note that if you are looking for alternatives to popcorn reading, folks are into choral reading– gets most students reading and provides cover for lower readers.
Looking for word problem resources? The intervention series takes students from simple, one-step addition & subtraction problems through complex word problems with all four operations!