Confidence to contribute

From the back of a lecture theatre - Prf Krsreenivasan Lecture

What is it?

Some students tend to contribute disproportionately to discussions while others hardly ever speak. This guide offers some alternative ways to even out student participation in a group discussion.

Why do it?

Hearing from students is an important source of feedback for educators about what and how students are learning. Students who contribute their views have more of a chance to form relationships with other students including those outside their immediate group, and speaking in public is an important life skill.

How to do it

Learn and use students names

Anonymous institutions can make students feel like worthless, interchangeable entities. Learning names makes students feel that it matters whether or not they succeed; this is turn builds confidence. Using students’ names will help other students learn them too, helping  relationships to form beyond affinity groups. Middendorf and Osborne (undated) offer a number of alternative strategies for remembering names. Warwick university had a project on audio name badges, and at King’s Padlet allows students to create these as Daniel Schillereff and Laura Patari have successfully described (King’s login needed).

Give students an opportunity to get to know each other

First thing in the module, help students get to know each other by making time for introductions or using relevant ice-breaker activities such as Concentric Circles. One ice-breaker suggested by Bill Broderick (Middendorf and Osborne, undated) is to leave the room for 5 minutes after giving students the instruction to learn at least five other students’ names. When you return, call for volunteers to introduce the students they have met, and welcome those students onto the module.

Wait time

Giving students thinking time between posing a question and seeking a response usually leads to more volunteers and longer answers with more reasoning and elaboration (Tanner, 2013). When you ask a question or seek a response, explicitly give some individual thinking time. This allows students to retrieve what they know and organise their thoughts. However, as Ingram and Elliot (2016) point out, extended pauses are not usual in ordinary conversation, so students who do speak may need a word of reassurance that extended pauses do not mean trouble, so that they do not lose confidence in their own responses or speak prematurely to remedy the awkward silence. Think-Pair-Share may help students to organise their thoughts.


Tokens may be helpful where some students are taking on a disproportionate amount of the discussion and you have the impression that others would like to speak but do not have an opportunity. Allocate each student three tokens (or an appropriate number for your group size and session time). Students use one token for each contribution, which means that students who have a lot to say will take a listening role after their tokens have been used.

Multiple hands, multiple voices

In the words of Kimberley Tanner (2013),

“… set the stage for this by asserting, “I’m going to pose a question, and I’d like to see at least three hands of colleagues here who would share their ideas. I won’t hear from anyone until I’ve got those three volunteers.” Additionally, this particular use of hand raising allows instructors to selectively call on those students who may generally participate less frequently or who may have never previously shared aloud in class. Importantly, instructors really must always wait for the number of hands that they have called for to share. Hearing from fewer than the number of volunteers called for can entrain students in a classroom to know that they simply have to outwait the instructor. Finally, if the number of requested hands have not been volunteered, the instructor can charge students to talk in pairs [see Think-Pair-Share] to rehearse what they could share if called upon to do so.”

At random

Colleagues are often reluctant to call on individual students, but Kimberley Tanner (2013) advocates establishing a culture where any student can be called upon at any time. She emphasises the importance of letting students know that they all have valuable, interesting ideas and perspectives to share. To ensure that being called upon does not feel like a penalty, she recommends making it random. She makes the process transparent for students by either picking index cards from a deck containing student names, or by writing names on lollypop sticks. Picking three names at once allows a conversation to start.

This approach also helps with learning students’ names – and it helps students learn each others’ names.

Everyone raise your hand

In the same vein as randomly calling on students, here the educator sets an expectation that whenever they ask a question, everyone raises their hand. This strategy works to prevent what Samuel R. Delaney refers to as students’ “self-erasure” through indifference or through the shame of not knowing the answer. If the student called upon to respond doesn’t know the answer, give them a form of words they can say, such as “I don’t know the answer to that, [Dr X], but I would like to hear what somebody else has to say”. This physical gesture of raising your hand is a way of saying “I am here”. Delaney has observed it to change how people feel about their worth and their right to have a place in higher education. 

Source: Cathy Davidson.

Norms of hand-raising before speaking

Hand-raising promotes turn-taking and is likely to lead to participation from more students than an open, unregulated classroom, which favours more confident students (Tanner, 2013). Combine with wait time (see above).

Question stacking 

An alternative to hand-raising, question-stacking is useful in large groups to ensure nobody dominates a discussion when someone else has something to say. When the time comes for contributions, any student who wants to speak writes their name down on a sheet or shared digital document. The lecturer goes through the sheet and asks for comments. No one asks a second question or makes a second comment until everyone else whose name is on the sheet has gone first. A time limit can be set per contribution.  

Source: Cathy Davidson.

Anonymous responses on digital devices

If you are asking a question you think students may feel awkward about, you can set a question on an audience response system and ask them to respond anonymously using their devices (phones, tablets, laptops). King’s offers every staff member an uncapped licence to use PollEverywhere, by arrangement.

PollEverywhere has a useful Q & A question type which allows students to upvote or downvote others’ responses as well as contributing their own, giving a sense of agreement or divided opinion in the room. You may then be able to start a discussion. To maintain anonymity try phrasing questions as “Why might somebody have said that?” or “Why do you think so many of us chose …” (rather than “Let’s hear from somebody who thinks …”).


Ingram, J., Elliott, V., 2016. A critical analysis of the role of wait time in classroom interactions and the effects on student and teacher interactional behaviours. Cambridge Journal of Education 46, 37–53.

Middendorf, J. and Osborn, E., undated. Learning Student Names.

Tanner, K.D., 2013. Structure Matters: Twenty-One Teaching Strategies to Promote Student Engagement and Cultivate Classroom Equity. CBE—Life Sciences Education 12, 322–331.

Image source: Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology, 2012  Prf Krsreenivasan Lecture. Licensed as CC BY 2.0.

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