Increasing Participation in a Safe and Inclusive Way

As the teacher I always enjoy when the class is actively engaged and a great discussion unfolds. But there are always those students who stay quiet and seem to want to disappear into the background. It’s those students I want to hear from the most but how do I go about encouraging their participation in a supportive manner that ensures that the learning environment stays a safe one?

In the textbook Student Engagement Techniques, the teacher says he gets everyone to speak up in class and calls on people randomly throughout his class. The teacher part of me says “oh this is a great strategy I should just do that…” But the past student in me says “no way hosay that will put people on the spot and create feelings of un-safety because that’s what it did to me.” Back in grade school I was the daydreamer type. School was a lot of the teacher talking, very pedagogical in its approach, and this was not my learning style so my mind wandered A LOT. My grade 5 teacher recognized this ‘mind-a-thousand-miles-away’ stare and would randomly and suddenly call on me. Of course at that moment I wouldn’t be paying attention and I would be stumbling over my words trying to find an answer to a question I had no idea how to answer. I felt stupid to say the least and it felt like I was being shamed in front of my peers. After this recurrent experience it became that whenever I got called on, even if I was engaged and following along and knew the answer, it was severely anxiety provoking, and my mind drawing a complete blank. Funny how we carry these past learning experiences along with us and they shape our current learning and teaching.

This teacher said that he chooses this method because “it keeps the few brainiacs from dominating the discussion and it requires the shyer students to speak up” (p.71). I disagree with this comment on several accounts. First of all, just because people are talking a lot doesn’t make them any smarter than the quieter ones. In fact, I often find some of my quieter students the more thoughtful ones. Wouldn’t you agree? So there is a fallacy with this assumption right from the gates. Secondly, being a nurse and Registered Clinical Hypnotherapist I feel it is always crucial to look at the underlying cause for everything. There is always a reason for behaviour. If a student is not speaking up there is a reason for it. It is a learned response. As a teacher we cannot force a student to speak up because we likely do not know their deeper issues for this. Forcing or coercing a student to do so feels very power over, very pedagogical, and can backfire in a negative way by further creating more disengagement from these students. Exactly the opposite of what we want.

I know I am not the only one who hates to be called on. So while this teacher who encourages calling on everyone in class I feel that this does not breed good safe learning culture. In my PIDP 3100 I did a project on cultural safety and read about the learning needs of Indigenous students. In this one particular article about the Blackfoot in Lethbridge it discussed how often “in Western education, a hesitation or slow-to-respond answer is judged in the negative, as not knowing, when, in fact, the student may simply be taking time to formulate an appropriate and respectful answer” (Hogue, p.16). I have had ESL students say that they felt they couldn’t keep up with the discussion because they needed more time to process as well.   After all their brains have to double translate: from what they are hearing to their first language and then their thinking and answer in their first language to respond in English.

So instead I challenge this approach of calling on students randomly with a few alternate approaches which encourage engagement, participation while maintaining a supportive, safe and inclusive learning environment….

1) Give students time to process: To address the diverse needs of our students and give students more time to process information and their thoughts we can pose a question then give the students a couple minutes to think of their answer, jot some ideas down, before speaking up in the larger class. Think, pair, share is a wonderful teaching technique.

2) Participation can look different for every student. While a particular student may not speak up in front of the larger class, it is imperative we give students like this other opportunities to engage and speak up. Small group work is ideal for this or 5 minute papers they hand in. Designating different roles for students during group work so the quieter student feels they have a role to fulfill. Maybe even giving the student the role of reporter intentionally. The student has time to construct the information, write it down so they can more easily articulate their thoughts and ideas. Hogue (2012) states that it is important to understand cultural ways of communication and interaction to enable Aboriginal students’ participation in the classroom. I will open up this statement even further to encompass students of all cultures.

3) Asking the right questions. We can also encourage larger class participation by being supportive when people participate and focus on the exchange of ideas rather than right or wrong answers. A shift in what questions the teacher opens up to the class can address this. Asking grey area questions where there is not necessarily a black and white answer increases the safety of students answering. Also, rather than asking low-level order questions integrating higher level order questions. Asking their opinion on things, “what do you think?” “what would you do in this situation?” “Share an example of this concept from your life.” “Tell me a time when…” Here is a resource that demonstrates questions that corresponds to Bloom’s different order thinking questions.


Malcolm Wilson, ICT Curriculum Development Officer for Falkirk Council offers this to support higher order thinking in classroom.

4) Encourage student participation by developing those skills and being clear with expectations. Being in a classroom, the student is part of a “mini community with a responsibility to everyone and participating is part of that responsibility.” Here is a great resource that would be helpful to share with students to help set clear expectations but also supportively develop the skills it takes to participate.


Barkley, E.F. (2010) Student engagement techniques: A handbook for college faculty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Giwa, L. (2006). Raise your voice! How to speak up in class. Academic Advising Office: Grinnell College. Available at

Hogue, M.M. (2012). Interconnecting aboriginal western paradigms in post-secondary science education: An action research approach. Journal of the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies, 10 (1), 77-114.

About turnera2014

I am a Nursing (RN) Instructor taking the Professional Instructor Diploma Program at Vancouver Community College in hopes to challenge my current teaching modalities and inspire me to be the best teacher I can be.
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