Do I Really Scare My Students?

I recently observed a colleague’s class, during which I noticed that out of the relatively small-sized group, the same few students were raising their hands to answer questions and offer responses, while several others kept quiet for the duration. At one point during the discussion, the instructor reminded her students that she will only call on them if they raise their hands; she won’t ask anyone to speak if they’re not volunteering. Nevertheless, by the end of the class, the discussion had been pretty lively, prompted by a combination of large and small group work.

I was pretty surprised to learn of this instructor’s method, and when I mentioned it to another colleague, he told me that–again, to my surprise–he uses the same method in his classes: he only calls on students who raise their hands.

Both colleagues offered a similar explanation for this approach: the class participation component of the course grade is based on student participation in whole class discussions, in small group work, in various online activities, and the like. That is, class participation does not just mean raising one’s hand. Not all students are comfortable speaking in front of the whole class, and because they are offered a variety of ways in which to meaningfully engage in the coursework, they won’t have to speak if they don’t choose to. Students are made aware of this from the beginning of the semester, and so the classroom dynamic is initially established as non-threatening, the classroom a space where students need not fear being called on when they don’t have a response, when they might not feel like sharing their ideas with the class, or perhaps when they simply aren’t prepared to speak about the day’s reading or writing assignment.

As suggested by the title of this blog post and by my reaction to learning of my colleagues’ class participation methods, I take a very different approach. In all of my teaching, I have always striven to hear from as many different students as possible in any given class–and this sometimes entails calling on students who have not volunteered to speak. And, as I find unnervingly coincidental in light of just talking directly with fellow instructors about their reasons for not calling on their students, I received for the first time in my ten-year teaching career, a comment in a student evaluation speaking to this very issue: “Sometimes I felt scared speaking in front of the class & by calling on a student makes them more scared [sic]. When I was ready, I did speak in front of the class.” You can imagine my horror at realizing that I actually made this student (and I must be realistic here, maybe others as well) feel scared.

I hope this goes without saying, but I don’t ever call on students to scare them. Like my colleagues, I set out to create a safe and comfortable learning environment. I, too, offer (and count for students’ participation grades) various methods of student participation inside and outside of the classroom. Nevertheless, I have always felt that by talking in class (in whole group discussions), students have the opportunity to share and see the value of their ideas, however unformed or tentative their ideas may be; also, I believe students may be more engaged by talking rather than only by listening. Also, I think it’s important to hear a variety of opinions, experiences, and interpretations; the more frequent hand-raisers themselves seem to appreciate the inclusion of other voices in the discussion. Further, I don’t call on students totally cold; that is, when students have with them something they’ve written–either before coming to class or during class time–I feel it’s fair to ask them to share what they’ve written as a means to generate or to further discussion. I also always give them the option of reading what they wrote or just explaining/summarizing/rewording it–an option that it seems to alleviate some of the self-consciousness students may have about their writing. This way, they are still able to communicate their ideas, and this exercise may even help them clarify or strengthen their ideas through discussion, which they can then potentially translate to their writing.

There’s much more I could share on the matter, but in the interest of keeping this (relatively) short, let me conclude by saying that now having learned that I may in fact be scaring some of my students(!), I will continue to seriously consider what is best for my students and for achieving the course goals.

I’d love to hear how some of you handle class participation: do you call on students as part of your regular teaching practice? Any suggestions for doing so without scaring students?


12 thoughts on “Do I Really Scare My Students?

  1. I’ve struggled with this issue throughout my teaching career. There are certainly moments when I want to call on students because I know from their writing that they have great ideas and may just need a gentle push. On the other hand, I try to put myself in my students’ position and think about whether or not I liked being called on as a student. I hated it. In fact, I still don’t appreciate being “put on the spot” by someone else. As a result, I tend to not call on students (with the exception of the student who is sleeping or messing around). What I do instead is I tell the class (or part of the class) that I want to hear from each person on a particular topic. I tend to do this in lower stakes conversations, such as sharing a paper topic or describing a written response. I’ll say “I want to hear from everyone on this side of the room” and then I’ll alternate next time. This way, I hear from those students that normally don’t raise their hands, but I also give them a short heads-up. I certainly understand why teachers who call on students do so–and I think it also has to do with whether or not you offer a participation grade. I’ve stopped doing that (aside from attendance) because I grew so conflicted about how to assess participation–but perhaps that is a conversation for another post.

  2. Thank you for this post. I agree that of course, we do not mean to intentionally scare our students. This inner-debate often brings me back to a student I had a few semesters ago. He came to me individually to let me know that he got nervous reading out loud or being put on the spot in front of the class because he grew up with a learning disability. It reminded me at the time, and still does, that we really have no idea what our students are going through or have gone through that may make them uncomfortable in this way.

    One way that I have found to work with this is through anonymous work. I actually just used this today in class. I asked students to write down their central claims on a sheet of paper (they had just submitted their first drafts) and to not put their names on them. Then, they all handed them in. I was trying to get the students to focus on two points: 1) being specific to the literature in their claims; and 2) making sure they were presenting an argument and not just pointing out what happens in the story. To that end, I read each claim out loud and as a large group, discussed how each might be improved for revision. I got so much feedback from the students, and I think they felt more comfortable talking about the claims when they didn’t know who wrote them. I used to go around the room and ask each student to read his/her claim out loud; the discussion was never as varied and active.

    Of course, we can’t always work with anonymity. But I have to say that after reading your post, I realized that over the years, my methodology has changed; I DO actually only call of students who raise their hands, but I don’t think I used to make this distinction. Maybe subconsciously, I understood the discomfort that my students felt when being called on against their will and changed my ways without realizing I was doing so. Funny how we are influenced by our time in the classroom.

  3. The question I have is how well are we preparing our students for the world beyond the classroom when we don’t encourage their participation in class? If they are afraid to speak in front of their fellow students, how will they function in the workplace? The ability to communicate verbally with colleagues and co-workers is extremely important for success in professional life. In a world where over-reliance on digital media is eroding face-to-face communication skills, I think we are remiss if we don’t “push” students out of their comfort zones, however gently, into academic conversations.

    • So, why is it bad to scare students????? They scare me all the time! I have to agree with Sara Handley. What better place to engage and share ideas than in the classroom. For many, this will be the safest environment for them to try out new ideas and share opinions and thoughts. I intentionally provide low stakes questions to encourage participation, even from the quietest students and celebrate any and all efforts to make their voice heard.

      The student who expresses fear because they had to contribute to a discussion in our classrooms will one day thank us when they have to participate in a group interview or make themselves known at their first corporate meeting. It is our responsibility, as educators, to stretch and challenge our students beyond what they learn in a textbook and voicing their opinion may be the easiest thing they have to face in their future.

      • “They scare me all the time!” – Thank you for that, Gerrie.

        I am usually really big on preparing students for what they will face when they are no longer in college and in the “real world,” so I see what you’re saying. However, I wonder if we hinder their willingness to learn from us when we put them on the spot like this. I have found over the years that students are apt to tune out if they don’t like the way something is being taught or presented, so I worry that I might be losing their attention if I force them to speak when they are not ready to do so. That being said, I do want to make sure that that distinction is being made here between the student who doesn’t feel comfortable speaking but has done the work, and the student, as Caroline says, who “is sleeping or messing around.”

      • Thanks to all for the insights you’ve shared so far! I agree with Sarah that even though we have good intentions (including the aim to help prepare our students for the “real world”), it’s helpful to be reminded, as Caroline said, of the importance of trying to see things from our students’ perspectives. That is, despite the various reasons we might want to challenge our students by calling on them, if students feel uncomfortable, they may shut down in class or feel scared the whole time and thus will likely not be engaged in or able to absorb the discussion that’s happening around them because they’re so worried about being called on. In this case, calling on students as a classroom practice might be counter-productive (for some students anyway).

        Like Sarah, I had a student who, after the first class this semester, stayed after to express her fear of reading texts aloud–not her own, but our assigned readings. She explained that she gets extremely nervous at the thought of having to read something aloud when she might stumble over certain words that she doesn’t know or can’t pronounce. I assured her this nervousness is unnecessary, and I tried to comfort her by pointing out that this happens to everyone–even me–when reading something for the first time aloud. Despite my attempt to point out how reading aloud is a skill in and of itself to practice and strengthen in our class and despite my general reassurances and attempts to assuage her anxiety, our conversation ended when I agreed not to call on her to read texts aloud–as long as she agrees to raise her hand and participate in discussions once in a while (presumably when it’s not reading from a course text). I’m happy to report that thus far in the semester, we have both held up our end of the bargain.

  4. I think we are talking extremes here. Certainly, the student who is painfully shy, lacking confidence in their reading abilities, or who may be an English Language Learner represent those who have to move forward on their own terms. Any student who feels so strongly that they will take the initiative to speak with their instructor should be supported and complemented for making their needs and desires known, and no, I don’t feel the instructor should call someone out in class.

    However, I do feel that many of our students are accustomed to taking the passive role in their education. I think this discussion goes beyond just encouraging participation in the classroom. In order to overcome passivity, discussions should be expected and encouraged, assignments should be designed to enhance an interactive classroom and teachers should facilitate the exchange of ideas.

    Possibly by wanting to know what my students are thinking, I scare them. It scares me more that they may leave my class having missed out on the opportunity to really learn something.

  5. Tatum thanks for this great post; it was a good empathy check for me. I also hate being called on, I get really nervous and sometimes stumble over what I’m saying. I think being reminded of that is really helpful.

    That said, I have never resented or been afraid of the people who called on me. Growth shouldn’t be humiliating, but it’s not supposed to be 100% comfortable either, right? Fortunately, I never had a professor who I felt was trying to put me on the spot or who wouldn’t be satisfied with a half-formed thought.

    Over the years, I’ve tried various approaches to this, but In my 106 classroom now, I call on students all the time. I typically call on students who have not spoken yet during that class period when there is a lull in the volunteers. There are a couple principles I follow: I don’t ask people questions that I don’t think they can answer (because they didn’t read or are clearly having a rough day). I don’t want participation to be a test or a humiliation. I want students to participate because, like Gerrie said, they won’t learn as much if they sit passively.

    More than that, I want class discussion to be a way of developing ideas, not performing or showing off. I want my students to learn to be comfortable expressing half-formed thoughts. To that end: 1) I model it myself. 2) When student contributes a complete thought, I’ll often ask a follow up to push it further or invite another students opinion on it. 3) If a student is reluctant to share a freewrite, I let them share a part of it–even read an incomplete sentence–and have the rest of the class try to finish the idea. 5) I try to be super encouraging and to remind my students that what we’re doing is super difficult, so having an incomplete idea or a slightly inaccurate reading is totally appropriate.

    I haven’t really gotten any positive or negative feedback about this directly, though I’m going to check in with my students at mid-semester (now-ish) and see what they say. I do think, though, that I would be missing an opportunity if I didn’t help students learn how to engage in thoughtful, generative conversation.

  6. What a great discussion here! I appreciate the references to preparing students for the workplace, as I think that’s something we should always have in mind. I wonder how many professions regularly require someone to speak extemporaneously in front of 18 other people, though. To me, that seems like an academic genre, not a workplace one. Most jobs require people to speak extemporaneously in front of several people, though, which is where I think group work can come in. This is not to deny the value of discussion in the classroom; let’s face it–without it, our jobs as teachers would be pretty miserable. But I also think there’s something to be said for honoring multiple learning styles–and not all students process material the best orally.

  7. This is such a great topic, and I really enjoyed reading everyone’s take on all this. Figured this is a good time as any to give my own opinion on the matter, since it’s important for all of us.

    The thing that really decided how I run my classroom was the experience of a personal friend. This young woman is now in graduate school, but all through her undergraduate work and the start of grad school, she would have full on breakdowns about being “called-on” in class. When she realized some of her professors were more inclined towards “forcing” discussion on students, she would simply not go to class and risk failing in order to avoid it. Granted, this is one of those extreme cases—but my reasoning is, I don’t know this student’s personal insecurities or level of shyness and how deep seeded that is, so what right do I have to mess with their well-being? And that’s exactly what I tell my students at the start of the semester.

    I think this is where the pressure comes on us. Yes, of course, we want to “push” them, as Sally and Gerrie suggest, but there are other ways to do it than throwing a spotlight on them in front of 20 of their other peers with a “TALK! TALK NOW!” (Totally exaggerating, but let’s be honest, that’s how it may seem to our students). I think the job now falls on us—we have to create an environment that not only has them feeling comfortable to talk, but we also need to create a powerful discussion that has them wanting, needing even, to talk. We need to get to the point that they just need to argue, give their two-cents, join in, set the class straight on an issue, etc. And isn’t that our job anyway? To create a lively discussion that has all students (not just shy ones) wanting to get in on it? Messing with their mindset/well-being? That’s not our job, no matter how good our intentions are—and it limits discussion more than anything. Then the student might be so focused on “is she going to call on me? Crap, I think she’s going to call on me. Look away! Don’t make eye contact! Pretend to be busy taking notes! Please don’t call on me, please, please, please!” Who can contribute anything meaningful/think critically/be engaged if most of their energy is spent stressing out about what stunt the professor is going to pull next in their reign of evil against them?

    It might take some time, but even the quiet ones come out of their shells if we put in that extra effort. I also try to make them feel like they’re part of the conversation, even if they aren’t verbally contributing. Eye contact, a smile, or a shared laugh goes a long way.

    So, maybe it’s not so much about “pushing” students out of their comfort zones, but more of pulling them in—leaving the door open for them to peek through until they feel comfortable enough to walk in. And they’ll walk in. I have full faith in our students.

  8. I’ve always been the kind of student with her hand frequently raised. I’ve done the required reading/work, I have formulated idea and opinions, and I want validation and maybe even some criticism. Maybe.

    That said, I have felt most comfortable contributing in the following classroom environments:

    1. Circular seating arrangements so you can look your peers in the eye.
    2. Classrooms where class participation is not graded or tracked.
    3. Classrooms where I am called upon to speak when my hand is raised (I don’t want to be called on if it isn’t up yet and I don’t want to have the complete freedom to just talk without raising my hand- class size is generally too large for this).
    4. Classrooms where teachers have expressed up front a keen interest in really wanting to hear what I have to say.

    As a teacher, I have tried to establish this environment in my classroom. I am an elementary special education teacher so my opinions may not be directly applicable to the college classroom. However, the think-pair-share model has always worked for me to get otherwise reticent students to contribute- either through the mouthpiece of a more outgoing and confident peer or by getting their opinion validated before having to share with the whole group. Plus, it is now represented as a shared contribution, so your opinion isn’t alone. It takes a bit of the pressure off, much like the anonymity approach (which I loved!), mentioned by Sarah.

    As long as the students are comfortable enough, they should contribute, right? But they don’t. I think Gerrie’s point about students taking a passive role in their education is very apt— and unfortunate. At the graduate level I have been underwhelmed by peers not doing the reading or preparing for class. Instead they just “go through the motions” of showing up for class. They look down when a question is posed. I imagine the undergraduate level might even be worse. I wish I had an idea for solving this. Maybe students need to be told up front that they need to take an active role. Maybe this isn’t inherent enough. Maybe they need to be taught explicitly how to learn. At the elementary school level, we spend about a month establishing classroom procedures and expectations. Maybe at the collegiate level the students need the first class to explicitly establish expectations and how to learn and succeed.

  9. I have to agree with the comments by Sally Handley and echoed by others. Being able to express an opinion appropriately and clearly in front of other people is a critical life skill, and we’re remiss if we don’t gently push our students in that direction. Having said that, it takes some students longer than others to feel comfortable speaking, so I use other techniques to get them to participate.

    I have a lot of background in ESL, and I’ve adopted one of my ESL techniques for FYW. It takes a lot of students a long time to understand how to write specific, clear central claims. So I ask 5 or 6 students, usually chosen at random, to write their central claims on the whiteboard with different colored markers while the rest of the class works on peer reviews. I then ask for feedback. I was amazed the first time I did this to see how closely they scrutinized what their peers wrote compared to anything I put on the board. Students comment on everything–from lack of specificity to grammar errors to problems with antecedents, clarity, etc. Once the students sit down, everyone usually forgets who wrote what, and the students will critique the “blue one” compared to the “red one,” etc.,; the name of the writer doesn’t come up. Participation always goes up in these discussions. If I have an office hour after the class, I usually get one or two students who come in and say, “Now I think I may not be on the right track. . ,” so the discussion helps students who didn’t write on the board too.

    I do call on students occasionally when they aren’t raising their hand, but I let them off the hook fast if I get the “deer in headlights” look. Sometimes a student will surprise me and speak up when called on; I always try to get to them right after class to say “great class participation.” As others have mentioned, sometimes I ask students to read their own writing aloud. I never critique what they’ve written after they read; I always try to say something like “John made a very interesting point when he said that. . .” (In ESL classes we clap, but that seems a little hokey for FYW).

    Thanks to all for the comments; I’m new to FYW and this blog is a great help.

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