How to participate in class without saying a word

academic advice class participation High School Middle School
By Max S.

Does your grading rubric include a category like “classroom participation”? In my experience, when students learn they are being graded on their participation, their first reaction is to participate more: more frequently, more vigorously, more visibly. They raise their hand as often as possible, even before they’ve had time to really think through what they want to say. Some of the most “participatory” students will wave their hands in the air with great urgency, like they’re trying to guide a plane onto a runway during a storm. They think they’re demonstrating their A+ participation, but what I see is an unintentional distraction.

Participation in class is not about how many times you raise your hand or how often you contribute to class discussions. It is about the quality of your engagement in the classroom. In my classes, the students who are listening are often the most engaged. I look for the kids who have their notebooks out, their books open, their cell phones tucked away in their backpacks. Active listeners don’t only pay attention to their teacher, but also to their classmates. Their contributions to class discussions often build on their classmates’ ideas or respond to their classmates’ questions. In this way, they not only move the discussion forward but strengthen the sense that we are a class community whose members value and respect each other as thinkers and learners.

If you’re the type of student who always has their hand in the air, here are some tips to improve the quality of your engagement:

Put your hand down until others are done speaking. Take notes on what they say. Commit to a certain maximum number of comments per class, and make sure to keep count of how many times you contribute. Make each contribution count, by demonstrating not only your own thoughts but also your ability to listen and learn from others.

If you’re the type of student who rarely contributes, consider the following ideas:

Some students find it helpful to commit to one comment per class period. Some like to write out their comment (or at least bullet points) before raising their hand, to help them if their mind goes blank. If you’re not sure what to say, remember you can always respond to what your classmates are saying. For starters, sharing that you agree with a classmate’s point of view or appreciate one of their insights brings the class closer, demonstrates your listening skills, and helps you practice contributing to class in a low stakes way. Finally, if you’re worried about participation, schedule a time to speak with your teacher. Ask them for their guidance and support, and try to leave that meeting with at least one concrete suggestion for improving your participation.

It’s often said that we humans have one mouth and two ears, and that we should use them accordingly. While it may feel counterintuitive at first, it’s true in the classroom: the more you listen, the higher the quality of what you say. Keep that in mind each time you raise your hand.

Max holds a PhD in Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies from Columbia, an MA in Near Eastern Studies from NYU, and a BA in Philosophy from Vassar. An experienced classroom teacher, he currently teaches World History at Poly Prep Country Day School.


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