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Inclusive Teaching

The Inclusive Classroom: Fostering Student Participation

January 27, 2020
Emily Donahoe

Now that you’re getting to know your students, and their learning habits, on an individual level, it’s a good time to think about how you can foster equitable participation in your course. If you’ve noticed imbalances in your students’ participation levels, it’s best to address those imbalances now, before they become ingrained in your classroom culture. What follows are some tips on how to make sure every student is included in your class discussions and activities. 

Build relationships in the classroom: Students learn better and are more likely to participate if they have made personal connections with their instructor and classmates. Continue to prioritize activities that will build relationships among students, and try to connect with students on a personal level. Learn students’ names and use them in class discussion. (If you have a larger class, consider using name tents.) Take the time to individually congratulate a student who made a perceptive comment; to encourage a quiet student by validating their contributions; or to reach out to a student who seems to be struggling. 

Create an inclusive climate: Students are more likely to participate well in an environment where they feel comfortable. Make sure students know not only that their contributions are valued, but also that variety in student perspectives is welcome and encouraged. Ensure that many different voices are being represented in class discussion, and be aware of how the racial and socioeconomic makeup of your course could affect the dynamics of participation. Take the time to learn about experiences like imposter syndrome and stereotype threat that may limit students’ participation. The more you know about these student struggles, the better you’ll be able to address them.

Democratize the discussion: Large-group discussion is a great way to learn, but it is not equally effective for every student–particularly those students who appreciate the time to formulate their ideas before sharing them. Try breaking up large discussions with write-pair-share activities, small-group work, and time for students to brainstorm or freewrite. If certain students consistently dominate the conversation, consider creating an ultra-structured class discussion that limits who can speak at what time

Ask students to assess participation: Consider soliciting anonymous feedback at midterm about the classroom climate and the extent to which students feel their contributions are welcome or valued. You might also ask students periodically to reflect on and assess their own participation, as a way of encouraging more intentional engagement in classroom activities. 

Helping students develop the habits of good participation is an important part of any successful course. Start your semester on the right foot by building an inclusive classroom that allows each student to participate fully in course discussions and activities. 

Additional Resources

Stephen D. Brookfield and Stephen Preskill, Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms

Center for Research on Teaching and Learning, the University of Michigan, “Creating Inclusive College Classrooms

Harriet W. Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning, Brown, “Fostering and assessing equitable classroom participation

Jay R. Howard, “How to Hold a Better Class Discussion

Jay R. Howard, Discussion in the College Classroom: Getting Your Students Engaged and Participating in Person and Online 

Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning, Yale, “Inclusive Teaching Strategies

Kelly A. Roca, “Student Participation in the College Classroom: An Extended Multidisciplinary Literature Review

Viji Sathy and Kelly A. Hogan, “Want to Reach All of Your Students? Here’s How to Make Your Teaching More Inclusive

 Robert J. Sidelinger and Melanie Booth-Butterfield, “Co-constructing Student Involvement: An Examination of Teacher Confirmation and Student-to-Student Connectedness in the College Classroom

Kimberly D. Tanner, “Structure Matters: Twenty-One Teaching Strategies to Promote Student Engagement and Cultivate Classroom Equity

Thomas J. Tobin and Kirsten T. Behling, Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education