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Thoughts on participation

As my teaching for this terribly full semester starts to wind down1 I’ve been thinking a little about what it means to be a good participant in a group discussion. This isn’t a fully developed blog post, so much as a few thoughts that at some point I’ll develop into a guide for students…

Your voice matters!

Very often I encounter students who are quiet, thoughtful and tend not to speak much. This is totally okay - not everyone in the classroom needs to be talking a lot. On the other hand, I also notice that very often those same students will sometimes talk to me afterwards about a topic and (surprise!) it turns out that they’ve had some deeply insightful thoughts about something that we’d discussed during the class, but never managed to find an opportunity to say them out loud.

To my mind, there’s nothing wrong with that mode of participation, and in the classroom context I do consider “came up to me afterwards and talked about your thoughts” to be a valid form of class participation. Quiet folks can get top marks for participation that way!

Monitor your contributions

On the other hand, I also think it’s important to work on the dynamics of the room in a way that lets everyone have a chance to speak. To the extent that there are people in the forum with wonderful thoughts that no-one ever gets to hear, it feels like a loss to everyone. With that in mind, I think it’s super helpful for every participant in a discussion to ask yourself… how often do you speak?

  • If there are 10 people in the room and you notice that you are always the first or second person to talk then you’re almost certainly talking too much. Take a step back and let other people hold the floor for a while. Not every conversation needs your voice.

  • If there are 10 people in the room and you notice that you’re almost never able to “find an opening” for you to talk, then you’re almost certainly being unfairly left out. If it’s come to that point it’s totally okay for you to start being a little more assertive about making yourself heard.

As a general rule… it’s better to aim for a few really good, thoughtful contributions to the discussion than to provide many “hot takes”. Too many hot takes makes it very hard to have good discussion, in fact.

Help each other

My impression over the years is that the best discussions almost never occur when people are “arguing”. It’s kind of a trite point to make but when you begin your conversational turn by saying “BUT WHAT ABOUT X” you will tend to put the other person on the defensive. Rather than engage with you, they’ll tend to fall back on their own position and the end result tends to be polarising: everyone walks away from the conversation a little frustrated and no-one changes their minds.

A better approach, in my experience, is the one in which you frame your contribution as a way of building on what previous speakers have said. Starting your conversational turn by saying “That’s really interesting, and made me wonder about X” almost always works better, because you are allowing room for the person you’re responding to. It lets them pick up on your line of thinking and incorporate it into their own.

It’s also worth noting that you can “repair” an initially unhelpful contribution. For instance, if you suddenly realise you’ve gone a little overboard in asserting a strong position, and not left any conversational room for other people to join in, it’s easy to redress by adding some hedges in your own speech (e.g., “But honestly I’m not 100% sure - what do you think?”) is a surprisingly effective way of letting other people back into the conversation.

As a general rule I think that consensus building and thoughtful dissent are both useful contributions to make in a discussion: abrasiveness or competitiveness is almost never helpful.

Let it go!

Occasionally, despite one’s best efforts, we all get fixated on a particular topic. Sometimes, the right thing to do is just let it drop. If you notice that you and one other student have entered into a back and forth with one another, a good thing to do is for both parties to stop for a bit and let other voices in the room take over. It usually helps everyone when that happens because the conversation can “reboot” a little.

Invite others in

If you notice someone else who hasn’t spoken for a bit looking like they want to speak, invite them in to the conversation. This is much easier than you think it is - if you’ve started saying something and you notice that you’ve spoken over the top of the person who was trying to speak, all you have to do is say “oh wait… you were going to say something… you go, I’ve been talking lots!” Simple acts like this do wonders to open up the conversation.

Similarly, if you realise you’re saying something very similar to something another student has said, point that out. Acknowledging other people’s contributions to the conversation does a lot of good in making everyone aware of how much of a collaborative effort a good discussion is!

Jokes are good, but…

There’s a lot to be said about having a lighthearted attitude, and a little bit of silliness goes a long way in the classroom (and in real life). It does a lot to make the room a little more informal, it’s a nice way to build connections with your colleagues and peers, and so on. I’m all in favour of it!

However, some care is required. Not everyone will share your sense of humour. You might think that your remark is “irreverant” or “edgy”, but other people might find it offensive or distressing. As an example of this, I have (on more than one occasion) been in the room where someone has made what they thought was an innocuous remark about dating, but for someone else in the room that same comment elicited very unpleasant memories of a domestic violence (or sexual assault) situation they’d been undergoing trauma counselling to recover from. Being aware of the diversity of experiences that people might have is important… my experience from years of teaching is that there are many more people coping with genuinely difficult life situations than you think, and it’s rarely a good idea to “push boundaries” in the classroom, and never a good idea when it’s actually irrelevant to the topic of discussion!


  1. Relatively speaking. I still have an entire lecture series to teach and it’s a new series too so I have to develop the content … then there’s marking for four classes and a half dozen or so honours theses

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Danielle Navarro
Associate Professor of Cognitive Science

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