Fostering and assessing equitable classroom participation

Student participation factors into many instructional approaches used by Brown faculty, whether through discussion, presentations, or in- and out-of-class writing and problem-solving. Approaches that use student interaction are most likely to enhance student learning in a diverse classroom (Gurin, 2000; Milem, 2000). Yet, some students report nervousness or anxiety about speaking in class (Wang, 11/3/16), and at one time or another, many faculty have experienced a silent classroom.

By the time they are seniors, most (77%) Brown students report that their experience at Brown has helped them with “communicating well orally” (Brown senior survey). However, albeit a minority, some students report few gains in this area, and participation is a key component of the Brown student experience. Below, we compile evidence-based strategies to support participation in your course.

At the beginning of a course

Articulate why student verbal contributions to class are important: Sociologist Jay Howard (2015) researched talkers’ and non-talkers’ rationales for their levels of participation. Frequent participants were significantly more likely to report that students are responsible for contributing to class, while less frequent participants attributed the responsibility to professors. On the first days of class, Howard suggests having a discussion about discussion, in order to make clear the critical role students play in the activity: What were good and bad discussion experiences that students have had? What did the instructor do? What did students do? (Although tailored to discussion-oriented classrooms, this exercise could be adapted for other types of participation, or courses generally.)

Develop norms or guidelines for participation: If you a teaching a participation-based class, cogenerated guidelines can be extremely helpful for establishing the type of participation you wish to foster in your classroom and reminding students of this as the term progresses. One possibility is to have each student write a concern about the discussion on a notecard, shuffle (or group) the cards, hand them back, then have students develop guidelines that address these concerns (Fox, 2001). Guidelines can also be created by the instructor and distributed. Sample guidelines can be found here.

Articulate how student participation will be evaluated in your course: While we often think of verbal contributions as the basis of class participation, there are multiple, flexible ways for students to participate and contribute. For example, based on her research about silent students, composition instructor Mary Reda (2009) concludes that “we also need to be open to the possibility that the decision to be silent is a legitimate, reasoned one,” and she emphasizes listening, writing, and contemplative activity in class -- along with speaking. Participating in pair or small group activities, active listening, and inviting others to speak can also be valuable contributions to the class.

If students will be graded or evaluated on their participation in the course, outlining expectations for participation on the syllabus can help students to meet them. Brown syllabi for which participation comprises more than 15% of the course grade are required to document how it will be assessed and how students will receive feedback on their progress. Possibilities include student self-assessment (see below), written student reflections on how ideas or skills have developed as a result of participation, and weekly instructor notes on a rubric, or a scoring tool that outlines and assesses your expectations. In online discussions, most common rubric criteria are cognitive (e.g., use of critical thinking and problem-solving capacities), mechanical (e.g., clarity of language and use of citations), procedural (e.g., timeliness of posts), and interactive (e.g., synthesizing or prompting classmates' posts) (Penny & Murphy, 2009). In face-to-face classes, categories might include evidence of preparation, active and inclusive engagement, initiative in asking questions, application of readings in responses, and synthesizing or prompting classmates' comments (Lathrop, 2006). Examples of participation rubrics can be found here.

During the term

Emphasize your approachability: Students who feel comfortable with their instructor are more likely to participate in the classroom and to approach you when they are experiencing difficulties participating in the course (Roberts & Friedman, 2013). Instructors can emphasize their approachability by encouraging students to make use of office hours and by giving examples of ways students might use this time with you productively (Weaver & Qi, 2005). Arriving to class a few minutes early and leaving a few minutes late is another way to signal to students that you are approachable and interested in speaking with them outside of official class time.

Address reasons for non-participation: When further investigating the reasons students attributed to their non-participation, Howard (2015) found gendered rationales. While men were more likely to indicate that they did not participate because they were unprepared, female students were more likely to report that they did not know enough about the subject matter and that their ideas were not well-formulated enough to verbalize. Therefore, in a diverse classroom, mitigating both of these barriers is important to build a participatory environment.

  • Lack of preparation: Based on research about why students don’t prepare for class, psychologists Kerr and Frese (2016) suggest strategies such as quick online or in-class surveys or reading diaries to prompt accountability and test comprehension, as well as asking students to send a reading question in advance.
  • Time to formulate ideas: Biologist Kim Tanner (2013) suggests that it is useful to allow processing time before inviting verbal participation. Strategies such as wait time (i.e., allowing a few seconds for students to formulate an answer) or a minute paper (i.e., allowing a few minutes for students to write down an answer) can be helpful. Approaches such as discussing ideas with a classmate or in a small group can also help students test out ideas in a lower-stakes setting before they verbalize them in front of a larger group.

It is important to note that a student who suddenly stops participating, becomes withdrawn during the course of the semester, or exhibits a significant behavioral change might be experiencing a form of distress. In such cases, speaking with the student privately can help you refer the student to appropriate support. See the CAPS website for a list of ways to refer students to their services.

Experiment with participation format and modalities: In her research in engineering classrooms, Robin Fowler (2015) found that online (synchronous, text-based) discussions fostered more equitable discussions in group or team work for women and English Language Learners.

Depending on pedagogical goals, it may also be helpful to consider other modalities for a student’s participation.

Invite student self-assessment of participation: Howard (2015) suggests that periodic student self-assessment of their participation can boost learning and encourage more meaningful and frequent comments. One efficient approach is to use a simple rubric for self-assessment, such as 1=did not read and participate in discussion, 2=did not read and contribute once, 3=read and contributed once, 4=read and contributed more than once, and 5=read and contributed more than once and made certain  that every member of my group participated in discussion. Reda’s (2009) research with less talkative but thoughtful students also suggests that this rubric could be adapted to address the level of listening and integration a student shows, e.g., did the student show active listening skills by building on a previous student’s comment?

If you would like to discuss participation dynamics in your own classroom, please contact the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning for a consultation:


Fowler, R. (2015). Talking teams: Increased equity in participation in online compared to face-to-face team discussions. Computers in Education Journal, 6(1), 21-44

Fox, H. (2004). “When race breaks out”: Conversations about race and racism in college classrooms. New York: Peter Lang.

Gurin, P. (2000). Expert Report in the Matter of Gratz et al. v. Bollinger et al. No. 97-75321(E.D. Mich.) and No. 97-75928 (E.D. Mich.). Available:

Howard, J. R. (2015). Discussion in the college classroom: Getting your students engaged and participating in person and online. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Kerr, M.M. & Frese, K.M. (2016): Reading to learn or learning to read? Engaging college students in course readings. College Teaching, 1-4.

Lathrop, A.H. (2006, March). Teaching how to question: Participation rubrics. Teaching Professor, 5.

Milem, J.F. (2000). The educational benefits of diversity: Evidence from multiple sectors. In M.J. Chang, D. Witt, J. Jones, & K. Hakuta, Eds. Compelling interest: Examining the evidence on racial dynamics in colleges and universities. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Penny, L, & Murphy, E. (2009). Rubrics for designing and evaluating online synchronous discussions. British Journal of Educational Technology, 40(5): 804-820.

Reda, M. M. (2009). Between speaking and silence: A study of quiet students. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Roberts, A., & Friedman, D. (2015). The impact of teacher immediacy on student participation: An objective cross-disciplinary examination. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 25(1): 38-46.

Tanner, K.D. (2013). Structure matters: Twenty-one teaching strategies to promote student engagement and cultivate classroom equity. CBE – Life Sciences Education, 12: 322-331.

Wang, S. (2016, Nov. 3). Comfort speaking in class varies with gender, ethnicity. The Brown Daily Herald. Available:

Weaver, R. R. & Qi, J. (2005). Classroom organization and participation: College students’ perceptions. Journal of Higher Education, 76(5): 570-601.