Ideas for Encouraging Equitable Participation in Class Activities and Discussion

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“[B]y creating changes, even small changes, in how students relate to each other and to their teacher and by offering alternate ways of speaking in the classroom that do not replicate familiar dynamics, we are able to dramatically influence our students’ decisions to speak or to be silent.”

(Reda, 2009, 109)

The National Association of Colleges and Employers explains that the term “equity” refers to fairness and justice. In the context of the classroom, making participation equitable involves recognizing that because students do not all start from the same place faculty may purposefully find ways to address imbalances in the classroom.

Below are some practical ideas for encouraging and supporting more equitable participation in your classroom, especially when “silence is safer” (Reda, 2009, p.99) for students who may face additional barriers regarding class participation, including cultural expectations and stereotypes or discrimination and micro-aggressions based on their gender, race, ability, age, and more.

Before implementing any of these suggestions, it is worthwhile to consider first how everyone has different expectations of what “participation” should look like. Be aware of any assumptions that your students share (or should share), as well as your values and beliefs about what is best for students.

Preparing for Equitable Participation

Prepare to act and speak in ways that value equity.

Establish norms for equitable participation

Establish the norm that students wishing to participate (ask a question or make a comment) should raise their hands rather than call out. Then, call on a range of raised hands. Avoid calling on the first hand you see (Shafer, 2017).

Strive to be a “human” professor in front of students 

Students may feel intimidated or silenced by the perceived high power distance between them and you.  

To address this, you might present yourself as someone willing to be vulnerable, show emotion, and learn from mistakes. You might tell a story about what it was like for you as a learner. One additional way to humanize the professor-student relationship is to make it clear to the students how the professor wants students to address them (Reda, 2009). 

Pay attention to diverse students 

Bell and Golombisky (2004) note that minority students’ responses are often overlooked in class, and that faculty even hesitate to give detailed feedback for fear of hurting the student’s feelings. 

To support students who may be more likely to remain silent in class, you may wish to learn their names first, including correct pronunciation. Be ready to call on them first when their hands or eyebrows go up.  

Also, avoid giving general responses, like “okay”: instead, pay attention to what every student contributes to provide equally thoughtful and detailed responses, which can include praise and constructive criticism. 

Lead an exercise asking students to help set classroom values that encourage the voices of all 

Create a Padlet and ask students to post words and images representing what’s important for their learning and participation in a classroom. Give examples to help students with their ideas, such as respecting different perspectives, creating and maintaining a safe space for all, engaging in civil discourse, using person-centered language, etc. Revisit these co-constructed values throughout the semester to check with students using an anonymous survey, poll, or class discussion on how well the class is doing in upholding them (Plotts, 2020). 

 Increase exposure to diverse role models in the industry 

Students may gain confidence when they see profiles of minorities in your field. You may wish to arrange in-person or virtual opportunities for dialogue about their experiences as \minorities in your industry. For example, emphasize strong and visible role models of women and women of colour in math and science fields. You can show students that they are capable of a career path in your area by providing diverse role models, champions, and people in the examples you share in your teaching. (Paquet, 2021).  

Ask students about how they will thrive in class participation

Early in the semester, invite students to anonymously write down what their concerns might be when it comes to classroom discussion. Or, faculty can list common concerns or issues and invite students to check off items that apply to them (with an option to add more). Items of concern may include being called on by surprise, being asked to present in front of others, being interrupted or overpowered by others, feeling judged or made fun of, and being critiqued for having a different opinion. The professor distills and shares these written concerns, then shares them and brainstorms ways to address them with students.  

Class Icebreakers 

Interview a fellow student  

As a class, have students compose a set of interview questions and then in pairs have students interview their partners to introduce the partner to the rest of the class. Encourage other members to look for similarities and differences in the students that their partners introduce.

This activity might be de-briefed with some discussion about the importance of similarities and differences when working to solve problems in industry. 

About me in 20 

Have students write an autobiography in 20 words. Encourage students to share their specific interests, strengths, and values in their autobiography. Use examples that value different abilities and interests, such as “cares for others” or “likes to clean.” Invite students to share their autobiography in pairs, having students not only read their autobiography but explain more about why they wrote what they did. 

This activity might be debriefed with some discussion about how people can judge others if they only know a little about them. Use what they describe as examples and activities (Saunders & Kardia, 1997).

Less is more/Equal is more 

In Less is More, students are told that someone who speaks less will win the game. They should try to make their partner speak more by using techniques like asking questions (“Have you ever been there?”). 

In Equal is More, students should work together to ensure they speak exactly fifty percent or half of the time (perhaps judged by a monitoring student in each group) (Case, 2011). 

This activity might be de-briefed with some discussion on why less is more/equal is more is difficult in a classroom with different people in it. 

Feature unique student strengths

In a multicultural classroom, allow students to share their unique strengths. For example, to showcase insights about linguistic and cultural assets, facilitate a short “translation activity” to give students a better understanding and appreciation of what their classmates bring to the discussion.

Questioning and Discussion Strategies 

Use your facilitation skills to ask questions and encourage discussion mindfully.

Explain the purpose of discussion

Students don’t necessarily know the purpose of the discussion and may feel uncomfortable, uncertain, or manipulated by what they are asked to do. Even when teachers think that class discussion is open and opinion-based, students can feel the discussion is about finding the ‘right’ answer the professor wants. 

Faculty can assist students to understand the “rules” of question-answering and discussion by being clear about purpose. Being explicit gives students the rules for interacting (Reda, 2009). Here are some different statements that can articulate the purpose of a question or discussion: 

  • I want you to articulate your own opinion or idea, to express yourself. 
  • I want you to share your experience and expertise on this topic with me.  
  • I want students in this class to learn from each other. 
  • I want students to see a range of possible responses.  
  • I want to see if you understand the material (e.g., give the “right” answer). 
  • I want to give you feedback and clarification on the answers you give. 

Make a distinction between when the discussion is teacher-led or student-led. A teacher-led discussion may be more rigid and predetermined because the teacher tries to make a point or correct misconceptions and misunderstandings. A student-led discussion, by contrast, may emphasize openness, exploration, and the expertise and experiences that students bring to the classroom. 

Invite students to comment using their own conversational words and expressions in English

For some students, there is a high degree of distance between their home and school language. If a student believes they lack linguistic sophistication, academic authority, or some other form of prestige in class, communicating about ideas in a classroom may seem foreign, abstract, elitist, or difficult. 

To address this, faculty may acknowledge that there can be expectations of “standardized” college English in classrooms that are based on white, middle- and upper-class expectations. Emphasize that standard English is not a requirement or expectation for communication in the classroom, and encourage students to share their thinking and ideas informally, what’s in their head, and “what words make sense to you.” Avoid correcting students on their grammar or word choice unless it is to clarify a technical term.

Invite more and different responses 

Students may feel hesitant to share their views if they anticipate that other may have certain expectations of them. For example, students may stay silent if their views differ from the anticipated group “position” for fear of being admonished or isolated by members of their identifiable “group” (Saunders & Kardia, 1997).  

To address this, phrase questions in ways that allow students to share their friends’ experiences or comments they’ve heard and their own experiences. When appropriate to the topic, ask for various perspectives and ideas, encouraging views that conflict or challenge one another. Try to create a “network” or a “prism” of responses, which the faculty might capture visually as students share. 

Avoid negative feelings caused by singling out students 

Being put on the spot to answer a question during class is not the same as being part of a conversation or discussion because it is not consensual. It can make students feel coerced and embarrassed; such negative feelings can sometimes cause a “fight, flight, or freeze” response and may be unable to answer the question they otherwise know! For this reason, it is a good idea to avoid calling on students, even when they appear unprepared or intentions are good when calling out certain students who are quiet.

Try to do your own research. If you wish to have certain students’ perspectives on an issue, find out in advance the students’ ability to comment on the issue and willingness to do so publicly. This avoids tokenism and putting students in an awkward position, particularly if they lack knowledge about questions related to their group (Saunders & Kardia, 1997)

Say less and value listening 

Sometimes you can do more by saying less: when teachers are silent they may invite more active student engagement, especially in discussion activities. Rather than offer evaluation of ideas, faculty can leave space for students to comment on each other’s ideas. This practice models a type of learning where a student is not most concerned with absorbing the right answer, at least according to the teacher (Reda, 2009). It also promotes the value of active listening. 

Because listening is participating, it is a good idea to acknowledge that listening is as important as speaking. To give credit for listening is difficult; some students’ body language and expressions indicate attention to a speaker, while others’ do not. Even though students listen differently, faculty can emphasize listening as a contribution to classroom interaction. One particular practice to encourage listening is asking students to link their comments to a previous one. 

Ideas for Large Class Activities

Tokens/Sharing space 

If a few talkative students are dominating discussions, give students a token or a sticky note (have them draw a smiley face on the back of one side). Invite students to reflect on the value of comments given the limited time the class has together to listen and speak to one another. Encourage students to think about how they can make the best and most valuable comments possible in class how they can “share the space” together. 

Then, during the discussion, once a student has spoken that student gives their token to the professor or turns over their sticky note to the happy face site. Students who have spoken may not speak again until everyone has returned their token or turned over their sticky note. 

“Half and half” questioning and answering 

For a discussion activity about a topic, first ask the entire class for a list of questions (and only questions) about the topic. Record students’ questions. If students who tend to talk a lot are the only ones to participate, then as a follow-up to the list of questions ask only those who did not ask a question to try to answer one of those questions.  

This activity might be de-briefed to encourage students to think about how students may have answers to questions and others don’t know it! 

Encouraging reflective writing based on class discussion

Participation can include written as well as oral responses. To encourage participation through writing, invite students to do “quick write” for 3 to 5 minutes on a set topic or question. Alternately, students could write a reflection based on comments on ideas expressed by an especially talkative student (Howard & Weimer, 2015). Students explain their thoughts in writing on an index card or using a polling tool.  

The faculty member collects responses to share in later in class for further discussion. This activity may be debriefed to encourage students to see each other as opportunities for learning. 


Students are more likely to remain silent when they believe they will be drilled, challenged, refuted, embarrassed, criticized, interrupted, or dismissed. Students will be silent when they think their comments are inadequate (Reda, 2009).  

To address these concerns, give students a chance to speak without comment or criticism. Give each student the floor to comment uninterrupted at the end of a class. All comments, questions, and observations are welcome. Give students the option to pass or offer a “ditto.” Remind students that cross-talk, evaluated statements, and negative comments are forbidden during this activity (Bell & Golombisky, 2004). 

Ideas for Small Group Work Activities 

Reporting back  

Reporting back closes the learning cycle and ensures that learners were on task. It also provides the opportunity to encourage active listening during group work. For instance, ask students to report in after a small group discussion on the most profound or useful insights that their partners said (Reda, 2019). In other words, they must listen and share not their own ideas but the ideas of others. 

Do a group activity that involves everyone 

Group exercises that identify the specific resources that each group member brings can be useful in the early stages of group formation. Inform students of your availability to discuss group process problems that the groups themselves have been unable to address (Saunders & Kardia, 1997). Remind students during breakout group time that all students must contribute to the group effort. A group role may be assigned to ensure equitable contribution. Perhaps give out stickies that students can place in the middle of a group when they have shared to indicate they have contributed. 

Change up group leaders 

When groups are used, ensure that the same individuals do not always put themselves in the leadership position. Assigning students to roles (e.g., recorder/notetaker, reporter, moderator) or asking students to rotate roles should reduce the occurrence of this problem. (Saunders & Kardia, 1997). Or, give each group member a letter, and assign roles based on the letter. 

Try very small group work 

Put students in pairs to avoid dominating a breakout or small group activity. It is more difficult to exclude an individual when there are only two participants (Saunders & Kardia, 1997). Put dominating students together in the same pair or small group to give other students a chance to share. 

Remind students about the power of combining the diverse strengths of groups 

Be ready to challenge assumptions that groups will either be aided or hindered by having certain kinds of students in their group. Spend some time informing the class that each individual brings a different combination of strengths and weaknesses into the group work context and that students should not make assumptions about what these might be before any interaction with an individual.  

A Final Thought 

“Teachers’ strategies to “fix” the problem are not necessarily productive. It seems like I often see the problem of silence as a “me versus them” dynamic. I have to find the solution; I am the wizard behind the curtain who makes discussions run smoothly. […] I have learned that I need to give up that posture. I cannot “give” students authority, but I can work to create conditions where it feels safer to speak” (Reda, 2009, 117). 


Bell, E., & Golombisky, K. (2004). Voices and Silences in Our Classrooms: Strategies for Mapping Trails Among Sex/Gender, Race, and Class. Women’s Studies in Communication, 27(3), 294–329. 

Case, A. (2011). Dealing with dominating students.  

Paquet, S. (2021). Advancing women in STEM in the Government of Canada. Government of Canada. 

Plotts, C. (2020). Culturally responsive online teaching. Teaching in Higher Ed podcast

Reda, M. M. (2009). Between Speaking and Silence : A Study of Quiet Students, State University of New York Press, ProQuest Ebook Central.  

Saunders, S., & Kardia, D. (1997). Creating inclusive college classrooms. University of Michigan CLRT. 

Shafer, L. (2017). How to Have an Equitable Class Discussion. Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Wiest, L. R., & Pop, K.J. (2018). Guiding Dominating Students to More Egalitarian Classroom Participation.   

Elan Paulson

Elan Paulson, PhD, has been an educator in Ontario's higher education system since 2004. Before joining Conestoga as a Teaching and Learning Consultant, Elan was on the executive team at eCampusOntario. She previously served as Program Director and as an instructor in professional education programs at Western University's Faculty of Education. With a Master's in Educational Technology, Elan specializes in technology-enabled and collaborative learning to support diverse learners. She has also conducted research on faculty participation in communities of practice for professional learning and self-care.

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