How to Develop Class Participation Skills
Class discussion is here to stay for good reason. Students are more likely to retain information as they apply it through active learning and class discussions than through traditional lectures alone, where teachers talk and students listen. Engaging discussions can motivate students toward further learning and develop their critical thinking and interpretive skills. And class discussions can be fun. That is, once your child has the skills to participate comfortably.
What do you do when your child comes home with a bad grade because they haven’t participated enough in class? Aside from feeling pain for your child, you may also feel somewhat hopeless. All is not lost. You can learn to jumpstart your child’s class participation skills.
It is a matter of developing skills. A shy student or one who lacks the confidence to share their views regularly in class isn’t going to spontaneously start participating just because their teacher or parents tell them to. And the threat of a failing grade won’t motivate that student either.
Jumpstarting your child’s class participation skills irequires agreement between the parent, student and teacher. It also calls for extra work for all three parties but fortunately, the initial jumpstart can be completed in as little as two weeks for a class that meets daily.
Recognizing the Problem
It is easy to know if there is a problem if your child normally comes home with good grades and all of a sudden there it is – the first D they ever received. If this happens, it’s most likely to happen in the fourth or fifth grade when the pressure to share views in an open classroom setting usually begins. Determining what caused that D is another issue. After questioning your child about test scores, homework assignments and other obvious grading factors, it’s still unlikely your child will volunteer lack of participation as the driving force behind that grade. And it’s not easy to spot. Even a child who is outspoken at home or with their friends may not want to speak out in front of the whole class. If your child does not identify the problem, the best way to find out the true story is to speak with the teacher. You can’t fix a problem if you don’t know what’s broken.
Meeting with the Teacher
Make an appointment to meet with your child’s teacher either in person or by phone. If class participation is the problem, it will come up quickly in your discussion. Now is the time to lay out your plan to the teacher. You need the teacher to understand that you will be actively involved at home, working with your child to help them develop class participation skills.
You also need the teacher to understand that you can’t do it alone and need them on your team. This starts by agreeing what is possible by working through and negotiating the answers to these questions:
1. Is there time left in the semester or marking period to positively affect your child’s final grade? The answer should be YES since you’ve been alerted to the problem through a progress report. If the teacher answers NO, then you have some negotiating to do – most teachers want their students to succeed and if the teacher stands their ground that there is no way your child can improve enough to raise their grade, then there may be a deeper issue that requires escalating it to a higher school authority. Hopefully, that won’t happen to you.
2. How much participation is expected to raise your child’s grade? The teacher may have a number in mind but teachers often develop a sense of which students are raising their hands to answer and what defines significant contribution to the discussion. You’ll need both quantitative and qualitative measures for the participation part of the grading formula. By the end of your discussion, you’ll need to get agreement on a specific quantity since you will need your child to commit to that number too. The number should represent the number of times your child raises their hand, prepared with an answer. And balanced, of course, with the significance of the answer in moving the conversation forward. A good rule of thumb for an hour-long discussion would be four or five attempts to answer.
3. How high could your child’s grade go up if they sufficiently participate in class? The answer to this question is less a matter of grade and more about getting the teacher’s commitment. A D grade may not go up to an A on class participation alone but it may go up to a B. It’s important that you get a definitive answer since you will be using that answer to demonstrate to your child that the situation is not hopeless and both the teacher and parent are on their team.
This parent/teacher discussion helps manage expectations for you and your child and motivates the teacher to accept the challenge to help your child develop class participation skills. Avoid implying that this is something that should be the teacher’s responsibility alone. Keep in mind that the end goal is to help your child, not fight turf wars. And success will be found through a team effort.
Explain to the teacher that for at least the next two weeks, you will be actively helping your child prepare for class. You can ask for additional materials to help in your preparation but often teachers are hesitant to honor this request, fearful that they would be unfairly giving your child an edge over the other students. However, just the act of asking this may lead a teacher to be more diligent in assigning homework to all the students that would help in your efforts to prepare your child to participate fully.
Next you’ll need to lay out the rules of engagement. You will be doing the bulk of the work preparing your child for class but these rules are absolutely essential. They are simple to remember and will not disrupt the class. And they only need to be followed for two weeks.
1. Only call on my child when their hand is raised – You’ll need to commit to the teacher that your child will raise their hand at least 4 or 5 times per class or whatever number you agree upon.
2. No follow-up questions – Until a child is comfortable speaking in front of the class, the risk of not knowing the answer to the follow-up question can cause many a student to not raise their hand for the initial question.
The teacher should know that you will be sharing their commitment to these rules with your child. This will allow your child to get comfortable with speaking aloud in front of the class without the anxiety that they will not be caught off guard with a follow-up question.
Getting your Child with the Program
First, you’ll need to summarize your discussion with the teacher – their agreement to the plan, the criteria for what constitutes successful class participation and your role in helping them succeed. Your child will also need to know the two-week time limit so they make their efforts sincerely and quickly.
Second, to help your child gain confidence to participate, you will need to read all materials along with your child, guide them through vocabulary, and discuss the material with them. Encourage your child to look up and write down unfamiliar words and take notes on the major themes within the material to be discussed. Chances are these points will most likely guide the class discussion.
Simulate possible discussion scenarios, allowing your child to articulate their ideas. Remember, the ideas must be your child’s, not yours, or they will not be able to convincing present those ideas in class. The best way to do this is to ask open-ended questions and help your child relate the materials to events in their own lives, current news events and experiences of family, neighbors and friends. This makes the materials personal and easier to talk about.
Follow Up and Success!
In the end, your child will need to step up and participate in class. Each day after school you should follow up with your child to see that they are keeping their part of the agreement. The better they are prepared, the easier this will be. And knowing that the teacher has agreed to help them through this will add to their confidence. You should also check in with the teacher several times during those first two weeks and maybe once a week for the next month or so afterward to assure continued success.
By following this plan, fear of class participation will become a thing of the past and your child can concentrate on learning rather than dealing with anxiety and embarrassment.