Ashley Downing, University of Wisconsin-River Falls

Abstract: This paper addresses the educational need to have students participate in class. It looks at assessing student participation by discussing the important role teachers have in engaging their students. It also addresses why a student’s participation is so important to their academic success and looks at ways in which teachers can engage students to participate through the promotion of active learning and how this process can be assessed.

Keywords: participation, student-centered approach, active learning, feedback


If you have been a product of a k-12 education system sure enough you have had an unenthusiastic teacher similar to the monotone Economics teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. How can we expect students to be passionate about learning when we have teachers that are not passionate about what they’re teaching? We can’t. It is without doubt that a student’s participation in the classroom correlates with how well they perform on quizzes and exams. The higher a student’s participation is, the better they will understand the content of a subject (Bolkan). Since participation is so crucial to academic success, teachers are becoming more and more concerned with how to assess their student participation. While there are many different approaches to assessing the amount and quality of student participation, educators are skipping an important step (Darling-Hammond). Before you can assess student participation, a teacher first has to be able to adequately engage their students, thus, teachers need to be assessed on their ability to engage.

Why is student participation so important?

The dictionary definition of participation is “the act of taking part in something.” Therefore it only makes sense that student participation is when a learner plays an active role in their education. In a study done by Charles Bonwell and James Eison it was concluded that, “students learn more effectively by actively analyzing, discussing, and applying content in meaningful ways rather than by passively absorbing information.” Participation in the classroom is essential for efficient learning.

From a teachers perspective there are many benefits of getting students to participate in class. This includes the fact that participation adds interest, and provides teacher and student feedback. Participation can be used to promote student preparation, control what’s happening in class, and balance who’s contributing in class and how much. (Bolkan)

From a student’s perspective there are many incentives to participate in class. Specifically, discussion based participation encourages a dialogue among students, and gives students the opportunity to practice using the language of the discipline. Students can benefit by practicing and developing important speaking skills. Not only will students be likely to catch their professor’s attention by participating in discussion, but they will also be more likely to remember class material. (Bolkan)

How can teachers engage their students?

There are many ways in which teachers can engage their students which makes the student-centered approach so important. The student centered approach is an approach to teaching where a teacher evaluates their students and teaches to the specific group of learners by letting them have a say in what they learn (Peronne). Each class is unique thus each lecture, discussion, and activity should be too. “To draw students into the depth and complexity of a subject, we must look for topics that relate to student lives”(Peronne, 1994). Teachers need to relate their lesson plan to their specific students in a way that addresses where their students come from, and where they are potentially going. If teachers accomplish this, it is more likely that a student will be inclined to participate in their curriculum.

A way to accomplish the student-centered approach is through active learning. Bonwell and Eison define active learning as “anything that involves doing things and thinking about the things they are doing.” Active learning requires a level of student participation that engages the student, as opposed to sitting and listening quietly. While lectures are needed, teachers should modify traditional lectures to incorporate active learning in order to keep students from day dreaming. The modification of traditional lectures can be done in many ways. Teachers can:

  • Give students time to consolidate their notes during lecture
  • Insert brief demonstrations, writing exercises, and/or class discussions
  • Include visual based instruction

The list of what teachers can do to incorporate active learning goes beyond modifying their lectures. It extends to including class activities like:

  • Experimental learning events
  • Question-and-answer sessions
  • Hands on activities
  • Drama (role playing and simulation)
  • Peer teaching (Bonwell & Eison, Grabinger).

“Active-learning techniques have emerged as strategies for instructors to promote engagement with both discipline material and learning” (Bonwell & Eison). One of the most fertile grounds to promote active learning is by implementing in-class debates. Debates allow students to apply their knowledge in a way they may administer it beyond the classroom. They demand the use and development of critical thinking and oral communication skills, both in which are vital for success in most careers (Kennedy).

In research done for the Teaching for Understanding Project, Vito Perrone asked students of all ages and levels of academic success to describe educational settings where they felt they were most engaged intellectually. The common listed elements were when:

  • Students got to help define the content (active learning)
  • Students had time to wonder and to find a particular direction that interested them
  • Topics had a “strange” quality—something common seen in a new way, evoking a “lingering question”
  • Teachers permitted—even encouraged—different forms of expression and respected students’ views
  • Teachers were passionate about their work. The richest activities were those “invented” by the teachers
  • Students were able to create original and public products; gaining some form of “expertness”
  • Students didsomething—participated in a political action, wrote a letter to the editor, worked with the homeless
  • Students sensed that the results of their work were not predetermined or fully predictable

In order to create a classroom atmosphere that facilitates these experiences, educators must take a student-centered learning approach while utilizing the active learning method. “Students learn best when applying what they are learning and that teachers need to use a variety of instructional strategies, since students learn in different ways” (Kennedy).

Barriers of Active Learning

Since active learning seems to be one of the most efficient ways for educators to engage their students, you may be asking yourself, why is this not a widely known fundamental learning method in higher education? Bonwell and Eison concluded that there are common barriers to instructional change such as:

  • The powerful influence of educational tradition
  • Faculty self-perceptions and self-definition of roles
  • The discomfort and anxiety that change creates
  • The limited incentives for faculty to change

Not only are there barriers to instructional change, when it comes to active learning many faculty agree that while active participation is important there are specific obstacles associated with its implication including:

  • The difficulty in adequately covering the assigned course content in the limited class time available
  • A possible increase in the amount of preparation time
  • The difficulty of using active learning in large classes
  • A lack of needed materials, equipment, or resources.

These barriers are small hurdles in the journey to academic success. As classroom needs evolve change is needed to meet those needs. There are ways to approach active learning so that it does not hinder the classroom pace. Teachers that are concerned with not covering course material need to realize that the amount of material covered is not always the amount retained.

How to measure a teachers ability to engage

Teachers need to be assessed by students, faculty, and administration on their ability to engage. Student feedback is important in order for teachers to get a learners perspective. “When properly administered and interpreted, the global and specific items contained in student surveys can serve as an important source of information for identifying exemplary teachers and teaching” (Feldman). Student feedback is one way to measure a teacher’s ability to engage, however, the credibility of student feedback is a controversial topic when there are online venting sites such as Rate My Professor. In order for student feedback to be most valuable teachers need to solicit informal feedback opportunities that allow students to assess specific aspects of their teaching and do this a couple of times throughout the course (Feldman). Teachers should create their own evaluations that relate to the specific goals and objectives of their course in order to receive student feedback on the most important aspects of the course.

Beyond student feedback, fellow faculty members understand the behind the scenes that goes into being an educator and therefore could also evaluate a teacher’s ability to engage. By reviewing a teacher’s syllabus and lesson plans faculty can assess how much a lesson plan actively engages students based off of their own teaching styles.

Once teachers are assessed on their ability to engage students by the students themselves, and by fellow educators it is at that point when teachers can cross examine feedback and then grow and better motivate their students to want to participate in class.


We need to hold our teachers accountable on their ability to engage before we can ever expect to hold our students accountable on their level of participation. While each school, teacher, and student is different it seems that the barriers in the promotion of active learning are small in comparison to the benefits of this type of participation. “Understanding is about making connections among and between things, about deep and not surface knowledge, and about greater complexity, not simplicity” (Perrone).


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