Eliciting the Unheard Voices in Class with Alternative Forms of Participation

This is our second post in a five-part series on harnessing technology to engage students and advance their learning. Upcoming posts will focus on using video recordings to provide feedback and increase student metacognition, enhanced use of PowerPoints to drive student learning, and practical information on flipping the classroom and recording lectures.

By Emma Bjorngard-Basayne

Most, if not all, women have at some point in their academic careers received the instruction that they should “speak up more” in class. That is, we have been made painstakingly aware that the prized form of participation, at least here in the United States, is verbal participation. Any other alternative way of engaging with the material covered in class is somehow perceived as “less then.” In this post I want to

Photo of author Emma Bjorngard
Emma Bjorngard-Basayne is a 4th year PhD student in the Philosophy department at the University of Connecticut and a Research Assistant to Dr. Mitch Green. Her work is on emotions, in particular she is developing an embodied approach to affect. She also does administrative support and academic advising in the Business department at UConn-Stamford. Emma was recently accepted into the Graduate Certificate in College Instruction program.

challenge this idea and make the case that participation can come in many different forms, and further, given the benefits, we as instructors would be smart to make use of them. To be precise, I will below describe strategies on how to elicit the traditionally unheard voices in the classroom through active learning strategies, making the argument that these techniques foster self-confidence and retention of material.

Of course, I too believe that equitable sharing of ideas where people feel comfortable speaking is great, however, many students suffer from even the thought of public speaking. This can be for many reasons; for example, the student is an introvert, he/she/them belongs to a marginalized group or has had particularly awful experiences with public speaking in the past. Consequently, in a classroom that only champions verbal participation, a large number of student voices will not be heard until the midterm or the final exam. Considering the many perspectives represented in a typical classroom, and thus the potential for diverse discussions and exchanges of ideas, this seems like a missed opportunity for learning.

Before I move on to list my examples of active learning participation exercises, I want to briefly explain what active learning actually is. According to a post on the Center for Teaching Excellence at Cornell University’s website, active learning is “anything course-related that all students in a class session is called upon to do other than simply watching, listening and taking notes.” Active learning thus emphasizes the fact that student learn by both doing things and reflecting on what they are doing. In what follows are three participation activities that I believe encourage just this sort of engagement with the class material.

Activity 1. In-class Twitter Participation:  

Inspired by an after-class exercise described in James Lang’s Cheating Lessons in which students were allowed to gain grade points by tweeting questions at the course’s Twitter account, I want to suggest that one way to draw out marginalized voices is by allowing students to participate in class using this social media platform. The students can have anonymous (if that is what they prefer) Twitter accounts for the class through which they can both answer and ask questions, and reflect on the material in real-time. The students can simply tweet their questions, answers, and thoughts at the class account, and then, they will show up in a live-feed projected onto a projector screen to be discussed. The students would share their chosen Twitter names with the instructor at the beginning of the semester, and this so that he, she, them can keep track of their participation. For more detail on using Twitter in the classroom, see Marc Reyes’s recent post.

Activity 2. Google Docs Participation:

Another option for increasing student participation is to allow students, while in class, to engage with the material covered by writing down their ideas, answers to questions, and inquiries in a Google Doc. The instructor can set up and share blank Google Docs with the students at the beginning of the semester, and then he/she/ them can access them after every class. In this way, just as in the above Twitter activity, it would be possible for the instructor to record student engagement efficiently. Furthermore, since the time and date of the edits to the document would be available to the instructor, the student could not lie and say that they did participate, when in reality they did not.

Activity 3. Email Participation:

One method that my advisor, Dr. Mitch Green in the philosophy department, uses with his students, and that I have implemented into my own courses, is class participation over email that then gets incorporated into the class. The way I do this is by posing weekly questions that I know I will be covering in class anyway, and then students that do not feel comfortable with public speaking can send me their answers before the class meetings. I also ask them to clearly state whether or not they would feel comfortable with me sharing their answers and ideas with the rest of the students in the course. For example, if a student gives an insightful answer to a question, I will include it into my PowerPoint presentation and credit the student who shared his/her/their thoughts. If the instructor does not want to add to the number of emails that he/she they have to read, another option with this participation activity is to let the students record and email short audio messages containing their answers to the questions.

Since it would at least take some reorganizing of your current classes to incorporate the above active learning techniques, you might wonder why you should include them at all?

My own experiences in the classroom tell me that when you give students more options regarding what counts as participation, more marginalized voices will become known. They will see room for themselves to make their voices heard (in tweets, emails, and Google docs), and feel more comfortable as students in your class. By letting your students participate in nontraditional ways you can interact and reinforce their ideas and questions. As a result, students will feel that their ideas are good and interesting, will take ownership of their ideas , and will feel more self-confident in their abilities.

There are other benefits as well. For example, research on active learning shows that these kinds of activities “reinforces important material, concepts, and skills,” and as such would seem to increase retention of course material as well” (Cornell).

Taken together, do not be the instructor who at the end of the semester comments on the student’s evaluation report that he, she, them should have “spoken up more in class.” Instead, let your students find their voices and make them known not only in the traditional verbal way, but also in the way that is the most honest one to them.


1 https://www.cte.cornell.edu/teaching-ideas/engaging-students/active-learning.html

2 Lang, J. M. (2013). Cheating lessons. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 94.

3 https://www.cte.cornell.edu/teaching-ideas/engaging-students/active-learning.html

4 Active learning “builds self-esteem through conversations with other students” and I would argue, through conversations with the instructor. In my suggested exercises the students who are participating in alternative, non-vocal ways, can build self-esteem both by hearing their classmates comments on their questions or ideas (say via twitter or in the email that the instructor share with the class), and by receiving responses and further inquiries from the teacher. https://www.cte.cornell.edu/teaching-ideas/engaging-students/active-learning.html