Call it “active learning,” or “classroom participation” — every teacher wants to know how to motivate students to participate, and how to nurture more involved students and fewer apathetic ones. With a little extra planning, that is possible.
Below are four common reasons students don’t participate and techniques to solve those problems and spice up your lessons.
Problem: The content is repetitive.
Maybe it needs to be repetitive because the students don’t really “get it,” or maybe you’re reviewing for a test. In any case, they’re tuning out.
Solution #1: Assess their prior knowledge.
This could be as simple as asking students, “What do you know about (topic)?” and writing their responses on the board. You could also try a pre-test or a graphic organizer like a K-W-L chart. The goal is to find out what they already know (or think they know). You create buy-in for the students because they feel smart, and you can tailor your lesson to the information they don’t know or don’t remember correctly.
Solution #2: Try skills grouping.
Divide the class into groups based on what skills they need to practice – not forever, but for a class period or two, so they can focus on what they really need help with. So have a group that works on multiplying fractions, one on dividing fractions, and one on converting fractions to decimals. Make a group of “already got 100% on the test” kids and give them an extra credit activity or let them preview the next lesson. Then take time to move between the other groups and help them review. You’ll have more students engaged in the lesson and they’ll get specific, focused practice time.
Solution #3: Let them teach each other.
Especially good when reviewing before a test: divide the class into groups and give each group a topic. Set some guidelines and then let them teach each other. Encourage them to do interesting activities – write tests for each other, design review games, etc. – and evaluate each group on the accuracy of their content, the creativity of their approach, and how well they work together as a team. This is also a great way to discover how to motivate students.
Problem: The content is too hard.
This is really half the problem. The other half – especially with older students – is their fear of “looking stupid” by asking questions.
Solution #1: Allow anonymous questions.
Put out a “question box” where students can submit questions any time. Give each student an index card and ask them to write something about the reading assignment they did for homework. If they don’t have a question, instruct them to write a comment on the reading. Collect the cards and use them to lead a class discussion. You’ll easily recognize what parts of the reading confused a lot of students and they won’t feel embarrassed.
Solution #2: Allow them to work together.
We can’t do this all the time; individual students need to be assessed. Ask yourself: is the goal of this activity for them to learn the content, or for them to be assessed? If you want them to learn the content, why not let them work together? When they bring in their homework, do a quick survey for completeness, then put them in pairs and let them review the homework together. Encourage them to make changes if their partner’s answer looks right. When they’ve finished, review as a class. Students may be less embarrassed to share a group’s answer than their own and you may be able to complete the review more quickly.
Solution #3: Try a jigsaw approach.
No, we’re not talking about puzzles or scary movies. If you’re introducing new, difficult content, divide the class into groups and ask each group to master only one portion of it at a time. If, for example, you’re teaching the American Revolution, have one group focus on the Continental Congress, one on Washington’s Army, one on French support for the war, and so on.
Ask them to do a reading on their topic – to become the class “experts” on that subject. Then split up the class into new groups that include one “expert” on each topic. Ask these new groups to work together to write an essay or complete a worksheet that requires information about all the topics. They will teach each other in the process. Learn more about the Jigsaw Approach.
Problem: There’s too much information to present in too short a time.
Sometimes there’s no way around it: you simply have to get a lot of information out there in a short amount of time. So you opt for a lecture and just want your students to absorb the content. Instead, they fall asleep or stare out the window. What can you do?
Solution #1: Keep it “bite-sized.”
Remember: research shows the average student’s attention span is as long as her age. So even high school kids can only handle about 15 minutes. If you have a lot of information to convey, re-arrange your lesson plans so you never lecture for more than 10-15 minutes.
Break up large concepts into smaller sections – give a brief lecture, then do an activity to help it “sink in.” Repeat this process over several days. You’ll increase participation – and improve comprehension, too.
Solution #2: Keep them busy.
Don’t allow students to stare into space while you talk. Give them something to stay connected. Try “fill in the blank” lecture notes. Delete key words and phrases in your lecture notes to create a “fill in the blank” worksheet. Then ask students to fill in the worksheet while you lecture. Another fun variation – lecture bingo.
Solution #3: Look into the future.
Before a lecture, give students a prediction activity. For example, tell them you will be lecturing on Shakespeare and ask them to predict what you will say, or give them a set of true/false statements and ask them to take their best guess.
As you lecture, instruct students to compare their guesses with what you actually say.
When the lecture is over, have a class discussion and evaluate how accurate student predictions were.
Problem: The lesson emphasizes the teacher, not the students.
Solution #1: Keep them busier than you are.
The traditional classroom of yesteryear had the teacher at the front of the room, droning on while students doze. Re-imagine your classroom as a place where students are busier than you are.
Keep the “sit still and let me talk to you” moments as brief as possible; get those kids working! Give them worksheets, activities, discussions, and projects. That doesn’t mean you get to sit around — you will still be busy, moving from student to student or group to group, correcting, evaluating, or providing feedback. But now everyone is busy and involved.
Solution #2: Use groups.
Homogeneous grouping? Heterogeneous grouping? Tracking? Forget the buzz words: having students work in groups is one of the best ways to increase student participation. Don’t keep them in the same groups all the time –give them a chance to be the “smart kid” who can help someone one day and the kid who needs help the next.
Take a traditional worksheet or activity and give it to students in groups. Offer a reward to the group who finishes first with the most answers correct and watch them go! Note: it helps to have additional prizes available to keep groups motivated after the first group “wins.” Even high school students enjoy these competitions.
Solution #3: Give them a voice and a choice.
Do students ever get a “say” in your classroom? Of course you need to make most decisions, but there must be some things you could leave up to them – whether it’s what color chalk you use today or how long they practice a specific activity.
Kids tune out because they feel like their ideas don’t matter. Show them their opinions are important and they’ll pay better attention and speak up more in class.
There will always be some unreachable student who won’t respond, even with these efforts. But if you give these a try, you may be presently surprised at the previously unreachable students who just might join in!