When Students Participate Too Much
At a workshop not so long ago, we were talking about the over-participator problem—you know, those two or three students who would happily answer every question or express their opinion whenever one is needed. We talked about why it’s a problem. How the rest of the class becomes so dependent on these students to answer, few even bother thinking about the questions we ask. They simply wait for those familiar hands to pop up. But then a workshop participant interrupted our discussion. “I know some students talk too much, but gee whiz, on a regular basis they save the day in my class. They are there for me when no one else is.”
And that’s a very good point. What would we do after asking a question if no one established eye contact, no one looked like they had something to say, and no one appeared even remotely interested in responding?
Most over-participators don’t really know they have a problem. They’re almost universally extroverts, they like to talk, they have ideas, opinions, and experiences that they’re eager to share. They also like to keep things moving in a course. They don’t like the awkward silence and our obvious discomfort when no one volunteers.
Often all that’s needed to address the problem is a private conversation with the student who is speaking too often. The conversation should begin with an expression of appreciation for what he or she does contribute in class. That can be followed with an explanation of role the teacher sees for participation in the course. Students need to learn to speak up, to answer questions, and share their views. It’s an important professional skill. And students who are shy about participating will never find their voices if they know someone else will always fill the empty space between a question and an answer.
That said, there is a chance in most courses for over-participators to take their skills to the next level. Course participation improves when students ask questions, when they respond to the answers and comments of other students, and when they constructively disagree or offer a different perspective. So, the conversation can include a challenge: “Here’s what I’d love to have you doing in the course …” “Here’s a way for you to further develop your already excellent communication skills …”
We really can’t explore this topic without considering what teachers contribute to the over-participator problem. Who calls on students, giving them permission to speak? Sometimes students just blurt out a comment, but more often we’re just so glad to see a hand go up, we immediately call on that student. When teachers wait, look encouragingly into those spaces of the classroom where there aren’t volunteers, that often gives other students the time and motivation they need to come up with an answer and the courage to volunteer it.
Norms that govern who speaks, who doesn’t, and how often are set early in the course. And teachers strongly influence the development of those norms. Yes, we can say that a diversity of voices improve discussion, but that proclamation needs to be reinforced with teaching behaviors. “We need to hear from others.” Walk over to those parts of the room where no one has spoken. “What about those of you over here? Any ideas? Opinions? I’ll take any answer.” Or maybe try an activity to encourage individual discussion before participation. “Take a minute and talk about the question with the person next to you.” If a teacher wants a variety of students participating, that point must be demonstrably made early in the course. Regularly calling on over-participators only reinforces their behavior and lets the rest of the class off the hook.
But always ignoring over participators isn’t fair either. What’s most needed is for them to start monitoring their own behavior—how often they’re speaking and what they’re doing when they contribute? Can we challenge them and everyone else in the class (teacher included) to start doing that? How about a quick write or exit ticket (if you like that approach) at the end of class? Did you participate? How many times? How many times is too few and too many? What did you do when you contributed? Answered questions? Asked a question? Responded to something another student said? What’s the most memorable thing a student said in class today?
Over-participation can be a problem, but with a little teacher assistance most over-participators easily slide to the solution side of the equation.