Forcing Fair Participation in the College Classroom

Today we have a post by a guest contributor, Ryan Welch, a PhD candidate in the political science department at Florida State University.

HorshackTeachers and students  believe student participation in the classroom important for maximizing learning in the classroom.[1]  I define participation as verbal engagement [2] by the student with others in the class (instructor and other students) of the learning material.[3]  Participation has many educational benefits for students that often translate into life skills.

Although both students and teachers find participation important in the classroom, teachers struggle to get adequate student participation.  I know very early into teaching a class which 4 or 5 students (of 50 or so) will dominate discussion.  If left unchecked, that leaves a vast majority of students missing out on the benefits associated with participation.  Why don’t these students participate?  What can we do as instructors to motivate participation?

A number of students tell me that they wish to participate, but lack confidence in speaking in front of the group.  Research overwhelmingly comports these anecdotes.  So I attempt to increase participation by asking questions about the material.  Of course those few students mentioned above will volunteer their answers, but I also want to engage others.  Calling on non-volunteers presents problems of fairness.  No matter how hard we try, the decisions for which students to call upon will be biased.  In order to create a fair participation atmosphere we must randomly call upon students.

In order to create a more random selection process, I adopted my advisor’s poker chip strategy.  I assigned each student a number sequentially based on the alphabetic order of my class roll.  I numbered the poker chips and put them in a plastic container.  At times during the class period, I pulled a chip from the container, observed the number on the chip, and found the corresponding student on my roll.  That student must answer the question, or lose participation points.

This semester I tried a different method.  The process of drawing a chip, matching a number with a name, and then calling a student takes a non-trivial amount of time.  Enough time to break up the natural flow of class conversation; especially if a student does not know the answer, and I must call another student.  In order to rectify this issue, but continue calling students randomly, I tried something new this semester.  Instead of using poker chips, I used the R software package to create a random list of student names by drawing their names from a uniform distribution with replacement. With this list, I can seamlessly call on students without breaking up the flow of the class conversation.

But no method is perfect.  The most apparent drawback of this method is I am not able to learn the students’ names as easily.  Using the poker chips, I matched a number to a name on a printed roll with pictures.  Every time I called a student, I reinforced who that student was with a visual cue.  I did not realize how helpful that was for learning names until this semester in which I consult a list of names without pictures.  Knowing student names fosters a supportive environment that encourages participation  (which is the point of this whole venture).  The importance of knowing names has me brainstorming how to incorporate name-learning while still using the random list.

Student participation in the classroom leads to a number of learning and professional benefits.  So much so, that I find it reasonable to force participation. But forced participation should be done as fairly as possible, so I’ll use the list again.  If you want to try it out yourself, include the R code below to generate the random lists.  If you decide to give it a go, any comments and questions are welcome.

R Code

#set working directory

#load foreign package in order to write out the .csv file

#create a vector of student names
student.names <- c(“Student A”, ” Student B “, ” Student C “, ” Student D”)

#create vector of 100 randomly selected names with replacement
random.list <- sample(student.names, 100, replace=T) 

#create a .csv file in the directory folder which you can access and print or save to a tablet
write.csv(random.list, “student_list.csv”)


[1] For a comprehensive review of participation in college classrooms see Rocca, Kelly A. 2010. “Student Participation in the College Classroom: An Extended Multidisciplinary Literature Review.” Communication Education 59 (2): 185-213.

[2] The most common verbal engagement includes comments, questions, or answering questions presented by the instructor.

[3] Learning material is usually reading assignments, but may also include other media such as audio and video clips.

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