How to get quiet students to participate in small group discussions

Students who don’t carry their weight in a group continue to be a big concern for faculties that use groups and students who participate in them. Most often instructors and students assume that these students are lazy and happy that they’ve landed in the group with others willing to do the work, which sometimes is the case. However, this may not be true of all students who aren’t participating in groups.

In some cases it is just inferiority complex. When individuals are faced with others whom they view as more competent at some task, the threat of feeling inferior hinders cognitive engagement, resulting in reduced ability to process information. If a student is in a group and thinks the rest of the group members are smarter, better prepared, or know more about working in groups, he/she will be less focused on what’s going on in the group and more concerned about how he or she is likely to look less impressive than everyone else. So then what is the best way to eliminate hitch-hiking in group discussions?

Conventional wisdom says that you should confront the quiet students directly about their lack of participation and probably give pep-talks and private chats about it; that you should encourage and spur them on; that you should explain its importance and let them know that they need to participate more. However, doing so is a mistake because the added pressure will cause them to sink deeper in their seats (hide) or volunteer through clenched teeth (against their will). To get everyone in your class involved, even the most reluctant students, they have to want to participate, it must be of their own volition.

That being said, providing the learners with the right tools can increase participation. Most teachers assume their students already know how to participate because it seems so obvious — you just raise your hand and speak. But they need you to model for them how to successfully take part in a discussion. How best do you agree or disagree? How do you voice an original idea? How do you piggyback or dovetail? How long should you speak? What does a polite and impolite discussion look and sound like? What is and isn’t acceptable? Seeing how to do it removes much of the fear associated with public speaking and is all most students need to take risks and become lost in the give and take of lively conversation.

Another strategy is encouraging students to read course materials ahead of time so as to eliminate the element of not being knowledgeable. Assigned readings with guiding questions can be given to specific groups or the entire class and a readiness assessment set for the beginning of a new class. You can also come-up with other strategies to check the reading like having journal reflections and quick writes for language teachers. Alternatively, you could break tasks into smaller chunks with clear and specific prompts to guide the discussants on what areas to highlight during discussions.

Last but most important, structure the groups to ensure that each member has a specific role to play. In this case, a student has his/her unique duty and is not intimidated when others discuss theirs. Language teachers can, for example, use the literature circles which have the discussion director, word catcher and illuminator, among others. Other subjects can use a jig-saw activity that involves a representative from each group speaking on behalf of their group. If you have some students who are more talkative than others and who also have a tendency to dominate a discussion, put them in a group together. Put all of your quietest students in a group of their own as well. By doing this, you encourage your more quiet students to engage in the discussion as no one else will be steering it for them.

Conclusively, these ideas are not going to solve every student’s hesitancy to share in groups, but they will get you started moving in the right direction if you have students who struggle to participate in discussions.

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