Class Participation

Why might a student be hesitant to speak in class?

In many cultures, students are expected to maintain a respectful silence in class. They may not be accustomed to asking professors questions or for clarification and students may view such behavior as disrespectful or personally embarrassing. Students may need time to formulate answers or comments and may be hesitant to give opinions or be critical (in some cultures, this can be dangerous and is discouraged). Even if an international student does not speak in class (especially their first year), this does not mean they are not interested, not prepared, or do not want to contribute. In all likelihood, the student is frustrated by not being able to be fast enough with language to enter the conversation. Many international students are good listeners and are thinking through material and conversations – even if they do not speak. Interpreting a student’s silence through an American lens may result in missed educational opportunities and misperceptions.

*Recognizing and Addressing Cultural Variations in the Classroom (2014) by Carnegie Mellon’s Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence Intercultural Communication Center is an excellent resource for understanding cultural differences related to academic life.


What are some suggestions for helping students participate in class?

ESOL students enjoy opportunities to share opinions, experiences, compare answers, and solve problems with a group. Students also generally agree class discussion helps them think about course content (prior to writing), and interestingly enough, more than half of the students surveyed prefer working in groups when there is a mixture of students from different backgrounds. Many students feel discussing topics in class does help improve writing skills – this may be true even for students who do not speak!

Rarely is it encouraged to ask a student to speak for their entire country. Asking a French student about the French economy or a Chinese student about pollution in China may put them on the spot and the student may feel uncertain and embarrassed. However, if trying to help students understand a concept, asking students specific questions such as “can you think of how there might be a similar situation in ________(country) or from your background?”, for example, may help a student relate concepts to their own experience.

  • If possible,  give students 2-3 minutes to write an answer to a question and then call on them directly. This will give the student time to translate his/her answer before responding and will help them enter a quickly moving conversation.
  • Having students write responses and then collecting and sharing amongst the class will help pull in some voices that may not usually be heard in class. I have great success with this type of anonymous response and it usually leads to a lively conversation.
  • Discussion activities that have many people speaking at once such as speed dating, group work, answering specific questions, and carousel activities are a great way to get all students talking prior to higher stakes oral communication assignments. Keep in mind, these methods may be new to students and clear directions are important for success.
  • Remember that nonverbal communication is another way to assess a student’s understanding and engagement with material. This is especially true for students who have just come to the USA for the first time. 
  • In every possible moment, provide international students with good examples. This can be through video, student papers, your own annotations in a text, whatever – it is very helpful for students to SEE a good example of what you are hoping for.

Foster, K. D., & Stapleton, D. M. (2012). Understanding Chinese Students' Learning Needs in Western Business Classrooms. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education24(3), 301-313.


Do multilingual students like to speak in class?

A study at SLU was done with ESOL 201 and 202 students last Fall 2018 by R. Rhodes-Crowell.  Despite widespread belief that some multilingual students do not like to talk in class or wish to avoid classroom discussion, the following was found by two separate surveys, observation notes, and the use of MacLaughlin and Moore Critical Thinking Writing Rubric (2012).  A few excerpts:

  • Students are actively thinking and listening without speaking as evidenced by body language.
  • Wait time, time to read,  opportunity to watch class videos ahead of class time and providing questions ahead of time are all helpful for discussion and critical thinking. Silence is okay as students collect thoughts and ideas and prepare to speak. 
  • 84% of students enjoy opportunities to share opinions and experiences, compare answers, and solve problems with a group, but this drops to 63% when asked about a doing so with a single partner. 
  • 68% find working with a partner to be more interesting and productive than working alone, and 57% prefer to select the partner or group they work with.  
  • 66% of students prefer working in groups when there is a mixture of students from different backgrounds 
  • 84% hope for regular opportunities to work with a partner or group. 
  • 62% of students disagree to some level with the statement “I do not like class discussion”. 66% of students are comfortable with class discussion, yet it is new for 30% of respondents. 
  • 93% of the respondents agree with the statement “Class discussion helps me think about course content and 95% of students say thinking about course content helps support ideas in writing. 90% agree that thinking about course content helps them write ideas for class papers. 87% feel discussing topics in class helps improve writing skills.

 When asked “Does class discussion help you think about course content?” Student comments:

”Group discussion makes me want to engage in talking about course content and  so I want to read and understand.”, “Gives me a deeper understanding and I  can assimilate new knowledge.”, “Helps me verbalize what I have learned and real life situations.”, “Listening to many opinions and thoughts is really helpful  and I can make my assignments more whole.”, “Sharing ideas can expand our thoughts and associate to our own life.”, “Helps me focus in class.”

  • A marked improvement in academic writing started to take place at week nine. This may indicate time spent in discussion that fosters critical thinking helps improve academic writing. Give students time before assigning high stakes writing assignments. 
  • Students from different cultural backgrounds enjoy class discussion and find it useful to help with critical thinking and the improved ability to state and support ideas in writing. 
  • Design principles most likely to help develop these skills include sustained content and issues based with debate, a variety of perspectives, and use of relevant topics for feedback and questioning. 
  • Students may need multiple reminders why stating an idea and supporting it in writing is important. Students may think proper grammar equals good writing. 
  • Preconceived assumptions about a student’s willingness or preference for class discussion is not helpful or encouraged. Even if a student is silent in class yet exhibits positive nonverbal behavior, participates in peer review, and exhibits critical thinking in academic writing he/she may be benefiting from class discussion. 
  • Even if class discussion is new to students, students are willing to participate and perceive class discussion as positive for improved critical thinking and academic writing. 
  • Students need repeated opportunities to practice critical thinking in writing and this can take place in low-stakes writing in the classroom.