By Justin Ashley, author of The Balanced Teacher Path: How to Teach, Live, and Be Happy
Student buy-in is not always easy to get, but there are strategies you can use to increase student participation. The tips that follow can help.
Focus on Question Creation
Sometimes the questions we pose—whether during a close reading, Paideia seminar, or class discussion—seem confusing or boring to students. Our challenge is to ask questions that hook students into the conversation so they want to participate— not for a grade but because they want to share their perspectives or opinions.
Toward the end of a class one day, students read about four common immigration plans for the United States, ranging from complete openness to isolationism. When I asked, “If you were president, which immigration plan would you support for the country and why?” we had an intense (but respectful) debate about the issue. Even after the bell rang, students wanted to keep talking.
What I learned is that students want to answer our questions; we just have to pose the right ones. My question about immigration put students in charge of the country, which was interesting to them. Creating questions is a matching game for teachers—you need to align the learning standard (boring) with an intriguing question (engaging). My favorite book for amping up questions is Now That’s a Good Question! How to Promote Cognitive Rigor Through Classroom Questioning by Erik M. Francis. Lots of good ideas in there.
Encourage Continuous Participation
For the kids who are already showing courage in leading the conversation, try writing a short thank-you card and giving it to them after class. This positive affirmation encourages them to continue participating in the future.
Let Students Teach Each Other
Maybe there are a few students who master the content quickly. Make them teacher assistants. Let them help support other students who have questions.
Athletes don’t just show up and immediately start playing in a game. Before they begin game play, they stretch and warm up. They take a few shots and throw the ball around. In many lessons, we should follow the same format.
Start with a question that students answer with an elbow buddy or a partner nearby. Later, have them answer one in table groups. Then pose a question to the whole class. This way, more students will be more comfortable speaking in front of everyone since they’ve had time to progressively build their confidence by talking with a few others.
Create a Clapping Culture
Before we start group presentations, I typically tell my students a story of a time when I was speaking to a group of teachers and lost my train of thought.
There was that super awkward pause, I began to stutter, and my face turned ruby-red. That’s when one of the teachers began to clap for me and said something to the effect of, “Come on, Justin, you’ve got this.” Other teachers joined in and started clapping, encouraging me, and chanting my name. Then, the lightbulb went off in my head, my thought came back to me, and I finished the speech stronger than I had started.
I explain to my students that I have that same expectation of them. If someone gets stuck while speaking to the class, we need to step up and cheer them through it. It’s all about creating a classroom culture of encouragers, not hecklers, where we aren’t waiting for or wanting peers to fail but instead inspire them to succeed.
Make It Personal
“What makes you angry about the authority figures in your life? Your parents? Your teachers? Your principal?”
My eighth graders were typing a hundred words a minute to answer this warm-up question before we delved into the causes of the Revolutionary War.
Once I opened up the class for discussion, nearly every student raised a hand to share. By simply starting with a conversation about their own experiences, students were able to buy in and make genuine connections between their grievances and those of the colonists under the rule of King George III.
Give Students the Mic
Every lesson doesn’t have to be rigid. Some can be fluid, where you choose the topic and students choose the questions. The basic idea here is that students are more likely to answer the questions if they are the ones asking them. Two resources I definitely recommend for this are:
- The Question Formulation Technique (QFT), which is explained in the Harvard Education Letter.
- Empower: What Happens When Students Own Their Learning by John Spencer and A.J. Juliani
Extend Your Wait Time
Maddie Witter points out that the average teacher’s wait time for calling on a student after posing a question is 1.5 seconds. She suggests counting to three Mississippi in your head after posing a question. This gives kids more time to process their thinking and opens up the door for more varied participation.
Try a Simulation
Simulations encourage students to take part, especially when everyone has a role, because students depend on each other throughout the process.
When I taught elementary school, we would learn about the three branches of government by being the three branches of government. We had two sides of the room. One side was the Senate and the other the House of Representatives. They debated and voted on new laws for the class, like no booger picking. The class governor later signed off on a few and vetoed others. Students were more engaged because they had specific leadership roles, and I was more of a facilitator than a teacher.
Justin Ashley is an award-winning teacher, motivational speaker, author, and public education advocate from Charlotte, North Carolina, where he began teaching in 2007. He is also a highly sought-after speaker for professional development. He has been an inspirational keynote presenter for thousands of current and future teachers, creating an atmosphere that bounces back and forth between rapt silence and raucous laughter. In 2013, he became the only teacher ever to win both North Carolina History Teacher of the Year and North Carolina Social Studies Teacher of the Year in the same year.
Justin is the author of The Balanced Teacher Path: How to Teach, Live, and Be Happy.
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