The Prose of Participation: 15 Minutes with Julie Schrock and Steven Benko

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Two professors share insights, advice, and challenges for increasing student participation in the classroom.

We started the month of August with an invigorating trip to Asheville, North Carolina, for the Lilly Conference on Designing Effective Teaching. In between a whirlwind of sessions, we asked some presenters to share their work and ideas. First up were two professors from Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina: Julie Schrock, a professor of education and co-director of faculty development, and Steven Benko, an assistant professor of religious and ethical studies. Schrock and Benko have collaborated on a project to investigate what motivates students to participate in the classroom and to subsequently develop processes that are clear for teachers and students alike.


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What are some ways to increase students’ class participation right away?

Benko: I don’t think students natively know how to participate, so the first thing I would tell people is to never just ask “What do you think?” Students won’t know what to do with that question. You have to prime them and you have to prep them.

Schrock: I try to support engagement, try to make it safe to participate, and I provide a structure. I almost always do small-group processing before whole-group discussion. When I call out the groups, I don’t say “Kevin, what do you think?” I say “Kevin, what did you and Steven talk about?” So it’s not just Kevin being put on the spot. Steven was alluding to this idea of the structure of participation. Don’t just say “So what do you think about that?” You’re not going to get deep, meaningful participation without the structure.

Benko: And you have to be very intentional about it. I think a lot of people go into an activity saying “I’m going to increase participation.” They do one thing and then they fall back into their normal mode of lecturing, their normal style. We want students to be self-assessing their participation, being present and engaged in what’s going on. If instructors want this to happen, they have to plan and have to map this out.

How do you determine if and when you’ve achieved the goal of the conversation?

Schrock: When they’re talking in small groups, you have to go around and listen to the conversations to see if they’re actually discussing what you want them to be talking about. If not, try to redirect that. By listening to those conversations, you can also provide scaffolding to get them to a deeper level, or intervene if you hear them going down a path of misconception. If I hear conversations going well, I’ll say “I’m getting the sense that people aren’t done talking about this. Take three or five more minutes.” Sometimes the conversation is deeper, and it’s not always just this really quick think-pair-share. I might say “Now that you’ve got some information, I want you to go back and think about these questions and pool content.” I structure these activities so that every person has to contribute their thoughts, so I never have groups bigger than four. If you talk first for question one, the next person has to talk first for question two, so that a different person has to lead the conversation each time.

Benko: I’m not as structured as she is. The conversation itself, and the ability to have the conversation, and keep that conversation going, is the point. So for me, it’s about listening to them. When an idea might have been exhausted, it’s about backing that conversation up, and then moving it in a different direction. The skill I want them to develop is the ability to keep the conversation going. I don’t ever want to get to the point where they are learning skills to shut conversation down. Because I teach ethics, the big fear is indoctrination. Only by adding more voices and more perspectives can you break out of that.

What is one thing that you like about how you engage students in participatory activities and one thing you would change in your own teaching, even now, after having studied it?

Benko: I’ve given them more control. They feel more responsibility to add their voices in the classroom community. I think the goal is to move beyond the notion of participation as an assignment to what it means to be a member of a community. My challenge is that I need to come up with a way of doing participation where I see students’ differences as more meaningful than I think I’ve done in the early part of this project. The rubric I’m using now assumes one type of participation that moves from attendance, to class preparation, to talking in class. But students participate in different ways and what I want to work on is expanding that definition of participation to include recognition for the student who is not talking in class but is engaging the materials outside of class. That’s participation too.

Schrock: For me, I think I’ve done a very good job at communicating on a daily basis and structuring their participation. I don’t think I’ve done a good job of clarifying it in writing and on the syllabus. I would really love the idea of a participation rubric. I think my struggle is going to be, again, that participation looks different on different days in my class.

Benko: I think a big insight, and Julie just touched on this, is that often when a professor gives a participation grade, students have no idea what that number means. It’s a magical number that descends from the clouds at the end of the semester and no one can tell you what it means.

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