Does picking on students engage them in active learning?

We know that some teachers base their grades on class participation, but for those who tend to be quiet in classrooms, it makes it really hard for us teachers to master the art of judging the true calibre of a student.

Some students raise their hands frequently in class to ask questions, but what about those who don’t? I can imagine how difficult it can be for teachers to try to get every individual in class to participate. But how else can a teacher evaluate student participation in an active learning environment?

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Some teachers would believe that this technique comes off as invasive to the student’s dignity in practice. Some others believe it can lead to policy pitfalls particularly if non-voluntary participation can be sensitive towards targeted ethnic or gender groups. A few others might think that calling out on students slows down the pace of the classroom. But I think this comes at an expense of active learning. Participation does not necessarily need to be in a spotlight-like moment where I call out on a student to answer a difficult question. However, participation can be in other forms, and it tends to be the most effective in a classroom if it involves group work.

From a student’s perspective, it’s a completely different world. One reason why I think students don’t want to volunteer is their reluctance to “show off”. Another reason would be that the student doesn’t want to feel ashamed if they weren’t able to answer a question on a call out. In reality, it comes down to the individuals themselves. Culture, experience, and individual values play a pivotal role on how a student will behave under non-voluntary participation, and it can be either rewarding, or damaging depending on the scenario.

I’ll close this out with a story where I once fell victim to non-voluntary participation. I was asked to walk up to the board and solve an equation in my undergraduate statics class. But prior to that, the professor called out on a student to walk up and solve the same problem. The student denied at first, and was repeatedly asked to go on the board and solve the problem. This went back and forth for a couple of minutes until the professor completely gives up on the student and asks me instead. I only knew half the answer, and there were times where I felt pressured, and there were times where I stood there not knowing what to do. But with a few hints from the professor, I managed to pull through it. I did it for the sake of learning, and not for the sake of saving my ‘dignity’. After all, life is an institution on its own, and we are here to live and learn.  The student’s reason for denying participation was because they simply didn’t know the answer. The student feared being ashamed if they walked up there and stood there like a statue, which leads me to the conclusion student’s way of perceiving non-voluntary participation depends on their moral beliefs.  Some would see this challenge as a problem to try and avoid, where some would see this challenge as an opportunity to learn.



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  1. I’m sorry to hear about your problem-on-the-board experience during undergrad. Unfortunately, I’ve definitely had a few of those incidences myself. This topic comes up a lot in my Graduate Teaching Scholar class. The literature says that when students feel comfortable in their learning environments, they tend to learn better. However, that does not equate to students not participating at all. I like how one of my classes is set up where we are asked to do a reading at home and then expected to talk about it in class. That way, students are fully aware that they are going to be called on. It shouldn’t be a surprise to them. If students are able to express their thoughts and opinions better when they have notes written down, then this gives them the opportunity to do that.

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