How to help students find their voice in class

Students know that they learn better when they speak up in class–whether that is asking clarifying questions, sharing an idea, practicing an explanation, or inviting their peers to expand on their ideas. Still, it can be hard. Students may

  • worry about their spoken English skills, especially for non-native speakers
  • dislike or be surprised at their voice in online meetings
  • be unsure of the pacing of online conversation, which makes it hard for them to “jump in” to the conversation because they can’t easily see if someone else is trying to speak
  • not know how long a respectful pause is online v. an uncomfortable silence
  • be unsure of how “participation” is graded in online courses
  • have a hard time recovering from tech mistakes, like if they forget to unmute themselves

Do these feel familiar? I bet that many of us have struggled with similar things as we’ve learned to meet online in our own work.

Here are some quick ways you can help students who want to contribute more:

  • give students a chance to prepare their thoughts before they share them, ideally in writing. Give homework assignments that inform what they will share in class. Use polls or surveys to prompt students to select an answer from limited options, then use the limited options of the poll or survey to give students a jumping off point for what they share aloud.
  • give students a chance to answer yes/no questions, not just open-ended ones, so they can contribute a short answer
  • ask questions with no right/wrong answer, so students don’t have to worry about feeling embarrassed about giving a wrong answer
  • invite students to bring examples to class from pop culture, literature, history, etc., not just from their own lives, so they are able to share examples that aren’t personal since that can feel threatening to some students
  • use break out rooms so that students can speak with their classmates without having to speak in front of the whole class
  • create assignments where students will hear their own voice online before they are required to speak up in class. For example, ask them to record an oral answer to a question on an exam, which only you will see/hear.
  • use the chat feature in your LMS, Google Meet, or another tech tool that you already use in class. If you manage a large class, consider asking a colleague for help managing the chat until you get the hang of chat management + live teaching. Chats produce transcripts that you can review later if you want to see who spoke, note unanswered questions, or identify themes in the conversation.
  • assign students to small groups for conversation, studying, and projects. These don’t have to meet at the same time as class; you can allow group members to decide on the time they will meet and on their group norms. Grade as complete/incomplete, and require students to submit video of their meeting. You don’t have to review the whole thing, just make sure that students are present.
  • require leadership or participation in groups without assigning the groups. Allow groups to be purpose-driven/task-oriented. For example, in some courses, I require every student to lead 2 45-minute study sessions per month, scheduled at their own convenience, and to attend 5 additional study sessions led by others. In a large course, this means that student-led sessions are occurring almost every day, so students can plug in around their schedule. They have to submit a recording of the sessions they lead and notes on every session they attend.
  • if you want students to participate in live sessions, tell them so. Let them know if you want to be interrupted and, if so, how they should do it. Should they message you privately in the chat with questions? Raise a digital hand? Wave their real hand on the screen? What if they want to pipe up but aren’t logging in with a camera?
  • if students aren’t jumping in, pause to explicitly ask them to do so and make time in the class for students to do it. Require everyone to make a contribution in some way, which will warm them up to talk. Chat, polls, surveys, and live documents (contributing to a Google Doc or Google Slide as class happens) gives them a way to contribute before they speak.

Do you have a favorite way for students to contribute? Share it with me and I’ll add it to our list of tips and tricks!

Some people just don’t know how to enter a conversation.

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2 thoughts on “How to help students find their voice in class

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  1. I encourage emojis/question marks in chat — we tend to all have our cameras off and be looking at a whiteboard screen. Sometimes I ask for them — “how’s everyone feeling?” “do we need more time?” “are we confused or OK here?” … and that normalizes it enough that students will throw them into chat at other times, too. It really helps to (a) make the chat box something they’re used to, and (b) make up for some of that non-verbal communication that’s missing.

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