• M. Baggetta

4 Ways to Increase Participation In Your Classroom

Updated: Jun 19, 2018

Distracted and disengaged students are terrible learners. Here's four ways to ignite interest and encourage engagement in your class.



Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.

When I go to class, I want to be exposed to new ideas. I want to experiment with my understanding of these ideas. If something is confusing, I want to be able to ask questions. If I find something mind-blowing, I want to talk about it. A lot. I want to know if it means the same to others, or why it doesn’t. I always want to know why. I want to have deep insights that matter to me. I want to be excited, inspired and encouraged. I want to be able to use what I learn and to share it with my world.


Why participation matters

Traditionally, teachers have used the currently established methods as effective, accurate ways of gauging students’ aptitude. These methods developed in classroom environments where the teacher stands at the front of class and lectures for a block of time, periodically receives bundles of paper from students, and occasionally calls on a lucky few with raised hands from a crowd of hundreds. Out of necessity, interaction between the professor and students in university classrooms has been limited.


Today, much of the information conveyed in a given class can be found online. Students with enough focus, diligence, and time can ace any exam or assignment without sitting through every lecture. Conveying information is not the only purpose of a professor. This disconnect between what a student expects from a class and what a professor expects from a student can be used as an opportunity to think differently about how teaching and learning can evolve together.


Let the students steer

Allowing students to seize control of the way they learn helps them to take responsibility for their own academic success. By having a personal investment in how they learn, students create tangible value and a resilient connection to course material that is grounded in direct experience. Why not use the 1-2 hour timeslot reserved for a lecture to create a learning experience that can’t be Googled?


Many problems in a classroom experience come from confusion between the teacher and student’s expectations around listening and participation. Confusion around what is thought should happen, what each party wants to happen, and what actually happens. To clear up this sort of confusion, clarifying the purpose, method, effects and results of your teaching practice can be helpful.


Show them you’re in this together

Teachers and students may have drastically different understandings of what participation entails. Lay out your expectations up front, and ask your students what they expect, too.


At the end of a term, take a class sentiment poll to gauge what your students thought about your methods. Use digital teaching tools to make polls anonymous and accurate. Understanding students’ motivations will help you (and them) find common ground from which to work together in future classes.


Are students just there because they have to be? Share your purpose for teaching with students and ask them to share their purpose for learning. Are the two aligned or disconnected?


4 simple ways to increase participation in your classroom


1. Craft lessons that resonate.

Communication happens on multiple levels, often all at once; all behaviour is communication. Take advantage of the multi-faceted nature of communication to affect your class beyond the room.


Interactive participation can be external or internal. Because the fidelity of 1-to-1 communication is so rich, being expressive and moving your body helps communicate externally. Internal participation is evoked by delivering a rousing argument, giving a passionate demonstration, or mixing jokes into a lecture. When a student is tuned in and engaged, a connection is established that makes interaction possible.


Given the attention economy’s demands on digital natives, the content of a monotone, lifeless, or rehearsed lecture (even one with powerpoint slides) is no contest when pit against personal feedback from social media friends. If a concept or idea is conveyed effectively, if it causes a class to feel something visceral, it will resonate beyond the classroom moment and return to mind more easily throughout everyday life. The trick is affect (as a noun) works in both directions, and it’s really difficult to fake, but if you put it out it will be felt and returned.


Without an acknowledgment and appreciation of the reality that students’ attention is predisposed to being focused in many different directions, incoming generations are at risk of being dismissed as uncommitted, lazy, or disruptive to class. Assuming a class’s presence will be divided into the digital and material/physical environments doubles the opportunities available to convey a lesson and engage with students on their own terms.


2. Consider using alternative modes of evaluation

Rubrics, major essays, and final exams may be losing their effectiveness among the info-saturated students constantly connecting with each other online.

For example, the archetypal Humanities ‘Final Essay’, can be updated into an ongoing exercise in research, argumentation, and rhetoric by making it an iterative process. Try treating essays like extended conversations not officially ‘graded’ until the end of the term.


By receiving equanimous, constructive feedback on a single essay several times, students are encouraged to re-consider, think creatively, find new research, re-think concepts, re-formulate arguments, and take risks. In subsequent iterations of the ongoing paper-exercise, students and professor gain clarity around what works and what doesn’t. The cumulative effect of this process is students’ increased capacity to make the same distinctions in future exercises, future classes, or when communicating in writing and in everyday life. The professor in turn gains a more fulfilled, engaged and invested class.


To make this type of exercise even more fluid and effective, consider using a web-based word processor like Google Docs, so that the paper-exercise becomes more organic. A single professor barely has enough time to critique each essay one time, let alone three or four times over. Instead, incorporate a lesson on how to critique early on in your course, then let students split into groups to comment and critique each others’ writing.


As a professor, you and your TAs can access, read, evaluate, and comment on each student’s essay or feedback at your convenience. The results of incorporating this kind of interactive engagement online can then be used in class to start discussions on the content of a paper or on the process of writing and critiquing itself.


Encourage mistakes. Creating a safe atmosphere (either in class or online) where students can make mistakes with confidence is essential for stimulating participation. No one will speak up if they are afraid of being shot down.

3. Make assignments practical and open ended to encourage play

Use open ended questions to start discussions in the classroom when appropriate. Classroom discussions can take place verbally, or textually online. We’ve had numerous professors report that when they use Top Hat’s discussion feature, far more students actively participate in the discussion since the social fear of raising their hand and speaking out loud disappears through the Top Hat platform.


Turn the lecture to your students – one way is to do a quick feedback poll from students. Giving students a voice and understanding their needs will help them feel like they matter to you, and will help make course material matter more to them. If ‘schoolwork’ can be reframed as ‘schoolplay’, participation and engagement will follow.

When students are able to get feedback about their evolving understanding of a lesson by bouncing it off others (not only the professor or classmates), their understanding of a lesson will grow outside of class.


Developing and delivering lessons with play in mind makes lessons matter to students in a personal way and allows them to connect with the professor, each other, and the course material directly. For example, see how one professor at Cornell used paper, scissors, and a clever riddle to teach math to people who think they hate it.


4. Use equanimous feedback to nurture interactive participation

When venturing into a more open, back and forth relationship with students for the first time via digital teaching tools in the classroom, the experience can be overwhelming at first. But technology is useful for evening the odds when interacting with a large group of participants while maintaining the feeling of a 1-to-1 learning experience.


More sophisticated digital tools like message boards or discussion forums multiply the email effect by the continuously visible, real-time interactive response-ability. With the indefinite ability to share, respond, and share, again comes a heightened awareness of students’ own personal responsibility as interactive participants and of the trust this kind of interaction implies.


Equanimity is the ability to let something be as it is, without judgement, preference, or aversion. What one professor likes or dislikes about a particular sentence, paragraph, or argument is arbitrary feedback for students. Feedback coming from an angle of equanimity is useful because it avoids subjective preferences, and focuses transparently on how those preferences are developed. This way, students can work out for themselves how to think and rework their understanding without feeling insecure or afraid of displeasing the sensibilities of others.


This approach to feedback and critique thrives on the professors’ maturity,  life experience, compassion and gentleness (a sense of humor doesn’t hurt either). Before returning a student’s work, scan your comments for preference. They may come across as subtle, as just a matter of word choice, but to students, they can reverberate loudly in the self-conscious echo-chamber of a developing mind.


The tools students bring with them to class are no longer just pencil cases, erasers and binders. Increasingly tech-savvy cohorts of undergraduates use technology to compliment the way they engage in everyday life. Thanks to mobile computing, these devices are being used (at times, to learn) anywhere and everywhere– including in your classroom. Why not use them to teach as well? Interactive participation among large crowds is now more accessible than ever and this is impacting traditional teacher-student relationships and roles. Students know this. As teachers start incorporating this reality into their pedagogy, the entire teaching-learning dynamic will transform.


Top Hat is designed to connect professors and students in the classroom and to facilitate an active and engaged learning environment. If you’re interested in a demonstration of how Top Hat can be used in your classroom, click the button below.

Originally published on December 3, 2014 at www.tophat.com/blog