Increasing Student Participation – the Response Sheet

For those of us who were painfully shy as children – “painful” really is the right word – we recall our teachers telling us that we must participate in class discussions. I still have my high school report cards – the most frequent comment is “needs to participate more.” I remember even being very shy around my parents. When I wanted to tell them something really important, I wrote them a note. Some of us are just more comfortable writing than speaking.

Students’ speaking in class is highly valued and rightly so. Those of us who practice student-centered instruction don’t want to be the only one speaking during the class session. We also don’t want only a handful of our students participating in discussions. Therefore, I appreciated when Mel Silberman, author of several books on active training, conducted a session at the Baruch College Faculty Orientation in August in which he offered some tips on how to increase participation – tips included “pre-discussion” and students’ calling on the next speaker. And I have to say his methods worked; he increased participation in the session. My concern is the narrow focus on speaking without giving students an alternative to expressing themselves. An alternative that may embolden students to speak in class later in the course or down the road in other courses.

When I first started teaching, I was particularly sensitive to students who are not comfortable speaking in class regardless of the reason. I wanted to give students an alternative way of participating. While I was looking at sample syllabi, I came across a syllabus that incorporated another method of participation, a response sheet. I am sorry to say I do not have a record of the source of this way of using response sheets and have only one copy of a syllabus with my directions to students- with a few years away from work as a full-time mom, crashed hard drives and flooded basements – more than a few things have been lost. As I have stated, participation in class discussion is highly valued and often represents a portion of each student’s final grade. So why do we appear to only value oral participation? Could we not have written participation? The response sheet is an alternative avenue of participation for students that has worked well in my classes.

Here is my sample from the syllabus for a course that had weekly class sessions:

Class Participation

To receive 100% on class participation, you will need to speak in class on average about once per week. There will be opportunities to speak every session during lectures and classroom exercises. For students uncomfortable with speaking in class, you can participate by completing a one-page reaction sheet (2 paragraphs at a minimum) for each class session. State what you learned or how the session impacted you as an individual. It could be a reaction, an insight, an opinion, but NOT a summary of the material covered. Reaction sheets are not required but strongly recommended. All students are encouraged to do them, even if you participate regularly in class. The additional credit may help compensate for other areas of weakness such as test taking. Reaction sheets are due the next class session and will not be accepted beyond that. E-mail submissions are accepted and encouraged.

Some guidelines for the response sheet are as follows:

  • For the first 2 response sheets received in a semester from a student, I give written feedback and a chance to resubmit for participation credit if the response sheet does not adhere to guidelines or is lacking in substance. I also read one or two samples out loud to the class as models of good response sheets (when I feel strongly that the anonymity of the student can be maintained). On all subsequent response sheets, I indicate whether the participation point has been earned or not and include other comments as I am inspired to.
  • You can also keep the practice of reading a few response sheets out loud at the next class session and spend a few minutes discussing them with the class.
  • I recall requiring response sheets or in-class participation in discussions for 10 weeks in the semester (for however many class sessions that works out to) in order for students to earn the maximum participation points.

In my experience, less than 25% of students submit response sheets. Some students started with response sheets then abandoned them because they were participating in class discussions. Perhaps they just needed time to feel more comfortable participating.

I really see this as one small way we can provide a more welcoming learning environment. Response sheets enable us to engage quiet students in a way that can lead to their speaking in class later in the course. If not, we still communicate that we value their input, and we too can benefit from the insights students express in writing. Imagine from the quiet student’s perspective of feeling encouraged as opposed to pressured to speak in class. I believe this creates a learning environment in which class participation will actually increase.

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9 Responses to Increasing Student Participation – the Response Sheet

  1. Sean O'Toole says:

    Thanks for speaking up for the shy kids, Leah! Of course, it doesn’t benefit the rest of the class when shy students hide out in discussions either—-they’re then deprived of hearing alternate (often smart, marginalized) voices. I like the idea of the reaction sheet as long as it eventually leads to some kind of oral participation, either later in the class period or in the semester. Sharing in pairs or small groups also creates an easier environment for quiet students (or at least a less threatening environment to get called on by the professor). I’ve also had some luck having students write one sentence from their written responses on the board, creating a kind of real-time “Discussion Board” or Facebook-like “Wall,” by which students can then question each other’s responses and get talking that way (again, either in small groups or as a class). So, I guess I like the idea of multiplying ways of participating, especially those that begin in writing, but I still see the primary importance of sharing ideas publicly—-both for the quiet kids (who often have the most interesting, challenging things to say and, you’re right, need to be encouraged to speak up) and for their less guarded classmates. I also think it’s important to break down the common assumption on the part of students that class participation is somehow uniquely for the professor (i.e., for the grade) and not for the greater learning of the group. Thanks for getting me thinking about this….

  2. WMillhiser says:

    I love the idea of a response sheet. Two related comments. (1) Are you aware that business schools that immerse students in the case method often make class participation 50-65% of the final grade? If 25% of the general population has a preference for introversion (Bradway 1964), then I worry these professors create a suboptimal learning environment for an large number of students. Yes, enter response sheets! (2) Another outlet that has emerged thanks to eLearning software such as Blackboard and eCollege is the discussion board. I know some professors who define “participation” as “in class or in threaded discussions”. They tell me those who are dead silent in class often give some of the most insightful comments in these online conversations. Now how you motivate students to participate online is another story.

  3. Elisabeth Gareis says:

    Leah’s post evokes many related questions: (1) For example, are there gender differences in classroom participation? I’m most familiar with a study from the 80s in which females were found to participate less, especially in classrooms with male teachers (see
    Do you find this still to be the case?

    (2) The same study also makes reference to the phenomenon that students who participate early on in a discussion (due to their quick response time and assertiveness) tend to continue their dominance throughout the discussion; i.e., “later birds” become lethargic and don’t get a worm. Should we therefore ensure equal participation early on rather than wait?

    (3) Then there is the question of whether we have gender preferences concerning on whom they call. There is research indicating that both male and female teachers call on male students more often (although I can’t put my hands on a source at the moment).

    (4) Finally, what about our many international students who may be shy due to their accents (and fear of not being understood) or due to native cultures that call for listening only in classroom contexts? I conducted a experiment once and made it a point to regularly call on the Asian female in one of my classes. At the end of the semester, she thanked me for it, expressing that she would not have participated otherwise and that the opportunity made her more confident about speaking in public.

  4. Amy says:

    I wish that I had a teacher sensitive enough to recognize how shy some kids really are. 10 percent of my AP English grade is based on a rubric that requires us to participate orally multiple times in class each day and ask questions for credit. It’s ridiculous that teachers offer so much help for papers and test taking, but when it comes to speaking in class most assume that discussion just comes naturally to everyone.

  5. Leah Schanke says:

    Thank you for the comments. It is especially great to hear from a student’s perspective. As you can tell, this issue is close to my heart. Regarding “calling on” students, I suggest caution – I believe Elisabeth’s approach with her student worked because of her expertise in communication and her ability to read nonverbal cues. So I prefer the word “invite” rather than “call on” and only when nonverbal cues indicate the student has something to say (not for example when the student avoids eye contact with you). Continue to read those nonverbal cues after you invite participation from a particular student – and make adjustments accordingly… Thanks again for your thoughtful and supportive comments.

  6. i think its a good idea to make a reaction sheet for shy kids. There are lots of skills hiding out for these kind of kids. I would definitely support the idea and of course implement it at my end as well


  7. No doubt very helpful for the readers! Most of the posts in the blog sparks some great knowledge… Thanks for the information!

  8. Pingback: Teaching with Cases : Teaching Blog at Baruch College

  9. brian says:

    Oh how I wish that this method of participation had been implemented when I was a student. Often i felt I had important information or opinions on the subjects discussed but due to my in ability to properly articulate what I wanted to convey in a concise manner, I would hesitate sharing with the class. As i move into the teaching field I will certainly add this idea to my collection of “tools” for an effective classroom.

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