How to inspire and motivate students to participate in class

Before we can effectively motivate students to participate in class, we must identify the various ways student participation can be structured. Each method provides differentiated opportunities to encourage participation from all learners. The most common method is whole-class discussion, valuing all responses, which helps less confident students to feel more comfortable participating. “Cold-calling” is the teacher asking questions and randomly calling on students to answer. This method tends to measure the quality of student responses. Another method is a collaborative learning activity, in which students work in small groups toward a consensus, then report out. This is the best method to encourage authentic class participation.
Self-confidence plays a major role in students choosing whether or not to participate in class. In order to motivate students to participate, teachers should drill down from large group, to small group, to individual conversations as a best practice to create open dialogue with students. As the relationship grows, teachers learn about their students’ goals and dreams and what matters to them. This practice opens the door for increased participation from students who have been reluctant in the past. The key is to encourage students to go above and beyond their comfort zone, which helps to build and sustain confidence.


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  • design participation space
  • create participation roles
  • reduce participation anxiety
  • provide informational feedback
  • use real-life connections

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  • alienate technology
  • rely solely on test scores
  • diminish student triumphs
  • leave students out of the assessment process
  • ignore chronic indifference

Charisse Beach‘s recommendation to ExpertBeacon readers: Do

Do design participation space

If you can move desks or tables around in your classroom, you might get better participation. Move the chairs into a semicircle, a “U” or two rows facing each other. Make only one row so everyone is equal and part of the arrangement. Put in only as many chairs as you need, turn the rest of the chairs toward the wall, so that all students sit in the chairs in your semicircle and not distance themselves from the class. Once all of the students feel the need to sit within the seats for participants, they will start to participate more.

Do create participation roles

Adopt methods that provide opportunities to have every student actively participating. For example, engage students in a jigsaw group activity with roles such as captain, supplier, timer, recorder and presenter. Here is a simple strategy:

  • Establish a reasonable time for the activity.
  • Direct the suppliers to collect the materials necessary to complete the task.
  • Remind the timers to observe the progress of the recorders.
  • Once time is up, have the presenters from each group share out.
  • Instruct the captains to complete the group’s reflection sheet.
  • Presenters share out once again.

Each member of the group earns class participation credit!

Do reduce participation anxiety

Many students are consumed by what their peers think of them. Avoid situations where a student answers a question and is told their answer is incorrect. They may become too ashamed to participate in the future. Instead, inform students that there are no wrong answers! The best group activities involve problems or scenarios that require a discussion of multiple perspectives and true collaboration to solve. Furthermore, assure students that sometimes what appears to be a “wrong” answer may be a necessary step for arriving at a better one. You can eliminate participation anxiety by fostering a communal classroom environment.

Do provide informational feedback

Informational feedback enhances class participation by empowering rather than judging students’ ability to respond or discuss. It specifically conveys what the problem is and how to fix it. For example, after an open-class discussion, you privately meet with each student to convey points for improvement, “I noticed that you did an excellent job listening to your classmates’ responses. Think about what you can do to recall the details of the text so you can share what you’ve learned”. This strategy is effective when implemented before class participation is assessed. Students may become motivated to participate when they know exactly what they need to do to improve.

Do use real-life connections

Students sometimes have difficulty participating in class because they are uninterested in the lesson. Make lessons relevant by connecting them to real-life situations or to their lives. For example, while teaching a math lesson, use sports, sport teams, music, flower petals, or food to teach fractions and percents.

When planning your lessons, implement a more student-centered approach. Tap into the past learning experiences of your students to expand their understanding of concepts with which they are already familiar; then go deeper into that familiar topic. As lessons are developed throughout the year, they should relate new ideas or information to what students already understand to encourage more meaningful learning experiences. Students who struggle with class participation feel better equipped to answer or discuss familiar topics.

Charisse Beach‘s professional advice to ExpertBeacon readers: Don't

Do not alienate technology

Effective use of technology will increase motivation and self-confidence. When students are using technology as a tool or a support for communicating with others, they are in an active rather than passive role for transmitting information from the teacher, textbook, or broadcast. The student is actively making choices about how to generate, obtain, manipulate, or display information.

The way students learn is fundamentally changing. Teachers are using digital technologies to engage students with more personalized learning experiences. Students are collaborating across geographical boundaries, and consuming and producing innovative education-related content. These methodologies produce rigor and vitality within the classroom, causing students who were once unmotivated to participate, eager to share what they’ve learned.

Do not rely solely on test scores

All too often, test scores and other standardized procedures are used to track students’ ability, and/or skill level. The over-reliance on tests scores may stigmatize students who do not test well and reinforce their feeling of isolation. Grouping students according to test scores will not increase class participation. In fact, just the opposite may occur. Research supports group diversity as a best practice to cultivate a variety of experiences and responses. The key to motivating students to participate in class is to group by personality. Strategically group students to ensure a balance of strengths and weaknesses; differences and likenesses. The result is a lively collaborative learning environment.

Do not diminish student triumphs

Rarely does one student excel or fail at everything. Teachers must foster resiliency by building on students' strengths rather than focusing on their deficits. Timely completion of homework, regular journal entries, or collaboration on group projects should be recognized as an accomplishment. Perhaps a “wall of fame” in the classroom or hallway could display artifacts that demonstrate student success and achievement. When students feel accomplished, they are more inclined to participate in class. When teachers hold students to high educational standards and communicate the belief that they can succeed, they usually do, and class participation becomes easier.

Do not leave students out of the assessment process

Students, like teachers, take ownership of what they help create. At the start of the new school year, negotiate with students on the criteria for successful class participation. You may begin by asking the class to recall times when class discussions went well for them. Ask students for specifics, such as what did the teacher ask and what kind of responses did students share? Record their responses on chart paper. Your goal is to incorporate their statements into your discussion planning. If possible, chart the effectiveness of this student-teacher collaboration for future formative assessment.

Do not ignore chronic indifference

Make every effort to get to the root of the lack of class participation. Perhaps if you address the issue, class participation may improve. For example, if a student sits near other students who may be intimidating or unkind, he/she may not feel comfortable participating for fear of being ridiculed. A seat change may be the first step toward motivating the student to participate in class. Also, address the bullying behavior of the students involved to prevent the recurrence with other students.


Many students feel unsure about what they’ve learned or should be able to do. Teachers can increase class participation by: designing space to invite participation, assuring students that there are no wrong answers, giving concise sequenced directions, incorporating technology and providing lessons with real-life applications. You may not be able to motivate all students to participate in class; but you can create a learning environment where students feel comfortable in taking intellectual risks, which frequently lead to academic success.

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