Increasing Participation through Random Calling

How can we encourage reluctant students to participate without humiliating them?

By: Grace Dearborn

Every teacher has students who never participate unless called upon. And while randomly calling on students to respond, instead of taking volunteers, can dramatically increase both attention and participation, it can also make unprepared or shy students feel cornered and defensive. How can we encourage our reluctant students to participate more without potentially humiliating them? And how can we let them "save face" if they don't know the answer? Below are some ideas for softening the anxiety for students when they are put on the spot.

But What I Do Know Is…
Pose a question to the class. Call on a random student. If a student says "I don't know" say "Okay. But what do you know related to this question?" For example, if you have a math equation on the board and the student doesn't know the solution, she can tell you which steps she knew to take before she got stuck. Or she can tell you what we are trying to solve for or what some of the symbols mean. This keeps her engaged in the process and allows you to push her learning forward.

If the question you posed has a less discreet answer, like "Why is Napoleon an important historical figure?" the student can say what she does know about Napoleon, even if it is not why he's important. VARIATION: Respond to a student saying "I don't know" with "Okay. But pretend that you do know, what would you say?" Or, alternately, you could say "What would you say if you did know?" Because now she is just pretending or guessing, it takes the pressure off needing to have the right answer and frees her up to try.

Answer or Echo
Pose a question to the class and randomly call on a student. If the student struggles to answer, offer him the choice to "answer or echo." If he cannot come up with an answer he then has the option to "echo," by standing up and selecting someone else to answer. Or he can ask you to choose someone else. A different student is then called on, while the first student remains standing.

The next student has the same choice, but if the next student also chooses "echo" that student also stands up. Eventually you will call on a student who is willing to share an answer. After that student shares, each of the previous students who had said "echo" must repeat the response given before they can sit down again. Note: We only echo correct answers. And echoes can be done individually or chorally, though individually is generally the most effective.

Advance Warning
Give a reluctant student some advanced warning that you will be calling on them to participate. This can be just a few seconds of warning or it can be a warning given several minutes or even a day ahead.

  • Seconds Ahead: Pose a question to the class and ask each student to individually write or draw a response in 90 seconds on a separate piece of paper or a mini white board. As students are writing, circulate and peek over their shoulders to see what they are writing. If you see that one of your shiest or least engaged or lowest performing students has a particularly good or intriguing response, whisper to her that you like her answer and will be calling on her when you do the whole class share. Feel free to whisper this to several students. This allows these students some time to mentally prepare to share out. And it lets them know they have the right answer. NOTE: While circulating, if you see students who aren't writing anything, gently encourage them to try: offer them the choice to write an answer, so you can see their thinking OR to give a verbal answer during whole class discussion, so you can hear their thinking.
  • Minutes Ahead: Catch a student entering class and tell him you will be calling on him to share answer number 5 from last night's homework. Even if he didn't complete last night's homework, he has several minutes to work it out before you get there in the review.
  • A Day Ahead: Catch a student leaving class and let her know that tomorrow you will be calling on three students, including her, to share what they thought was most important, interesting, or memorable about the content in today's class. To reduce any potential anxiety she might feel, let her know that she doesn't have to write it down, it won't be graded, there is no wrong answer, and she can share her response privately with you if she isn't feeling comfortable sharing out to the class the next day.

There are many ways to help reluctant or disengaged students increase their effort, attention, and participation in class.

Grace Dearborn is program director and senior teacher trainer for Conscious Teaching in Fairfax, California, and a frequent AMLE Conference presenter.

Published August 2017.

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