Stories from
the trenches

Why don’t students participate in class?

U.S. faculty member, CMU program overseas

Most of my students come from educational backgrounds where classroom discussion isn’t emphasized. But it’s critical in my field to have strong communication skills. Since class discussions can help students build these skills, I make class participation worth 20% of the course grade. Even so, getting some of my students to participate can be a struggle. Last semester, I had some extremely bright students, some almost as technically sophisticated as my Masters and Ph.D. students back in the U.S. I knew they had valuable perspectives to share, but it was nearly impossible to draw them out in class. I would tell them: “Speak up! You’re too smart not to let others in class hear what you have to say.” But they simply wouldn’t.

So, I tried something new: I started requiring all my students to give frequent, short presentations: a quick summary and analysis of a reading, an explanation of a homework problem, a short proposal for a project. The transformation was amazing! Students who had previously been silent blossomed before my eyes. With a formal invitation to speak, though, they had plenty to say. I realized that most of them weren’t shy, as I’d assumed; they simply didn’t know how to enter into the discussion or didn’t want to be impertinent by speaking up unasked. I found, moreover, that after students had made a formal presentation one or two times, their reluctance to participate informally broke down. Soon almost everyone in the class was contributing to discussion.

Other strategies