Every year, a handful of students come to my office hours to tell me that they feel uncomfortable participating in class discussions. Although they come to class prepared and follow the conversation closely, they stay quiet even when they know that they have something interesting or important to say.

I’ve tried a variety of strategies to help draw these students into the discussion. I often use cold calling in my classes, but for these very shy students I’ve found that this technique makes them feel put on the spot, and risks alienating them further. So instead I’ve developed a method that in the business world (I’ve since learned) is called “warm calling.”

Before class, I ask every student to respond to a provocative question related to the assigned readings. They post their responses to Moodle about three hours before class, and I quickly scan them as I prepare for class. When one of the students who has difficulty speaking up posts a particularly insightful comment, I email them to let them know that I appreciated what they wrote and would like them to share their thoughts in that day’s discussion. Usually, simply giving a student a heads up helps them to find the confidence to add their voice to the conversation. And any student who has trouble speaking off the cuff can print out their Moodle response and use it as a “cheat sheet” when I call on them during the discussion. This method is an easy way to make sure that everyone participates regularly in a course, regardless of their comfort level with public speaking. And an added benefit is that it helps me get a sense of how the class is reacting to a text ahead of time, allowing me to better plan the discussion around their agenda rather than my own.

                 -- Nellie Boucher, Department of History

For another tip from Nellie, see her article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on deadlines.