There’s no doubt that many students can become guarded when we ask them to share out ideas in class. The peer pressure and thought of putting ideas out there can be very intimidating for lots of students. So, how do we create a classroom where our students can feel comfortable to engage in the necessary communication skills we’re expected to teach? Here are few ideas to try:

Set the Stage

Help students understand that participation is part of the learning process in your classroom. Let students know that their brains are wired to communicate and that it helps us to learn new things when we discuss it with others. Tell them that it’s important for them to make connections to their own background in order to really understand what they’re learning. 

Decrease Student Anxiety

Make sure that students understand that they will not be graded on what they say. Emphasize that you are more concerned with their effort to discuss ideas and concepts in class than you are with having the “right” answers. Plus, by utilizing small groups you can reinforce the idea to your students that they will be sharing their group’s ideas, not their individual ones, again decreasing the risk-taking environment.

Model and Explain Your Expectations

This is a really important part of the process. Students will lower their affective filter when they clearly understand the expectations. For example, after posing a question to the class, give a possible answer based on what the students have learned. Then explain your thinking aloud. You may use sentence frame such as, “I believe _______ because _________.” This provides a built-in prompt for explaining one’s idea.

Set Listening Expectations

It is important to set listening expectations before having groups share out their ideas. Let students know they need to be listening as other groups share. One easy way to promote listening is to let your class know that they might get “a pass” on sharing, if they listen closely. Tell them that if another group shares the same idea they had, they can give a “thumbs up” to let you know. Then explain that you may give them “a pass” or possibly ask them to add one new idea to what the other group shared. 

These tips have encouraged lots of participation with many of my students. However, the very last thing to add is a big dose of positive encouragement! Even the most reluctant students can take steps towards effective communication in the classroom when the risk is low and the support is high!