The Science Behind Speaking Up – Five Ways to Encourage Participation in the Classroom and Beyond

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This is the third in a four-part series exploring the power of mindset in creating positive learning experiences and changing outcomes.

Raising your hand in class to ask a question or offer a response to a prompt can be risky business. After all, the teacher might actually call on you. Then what? If you give a correct answer or ask a question everyone else was already dying to know the answer to, you might receive approving nods from the teacher or classmates. But what if you’re wrong or everyone already knew the answer to the question you asked?

This winning approval vs. losing face calculation plays out daily not just in K-12 and college classrooms, but in faculty meetings, business gatherings, and even family reunions. How we think others will perceive us matters because it impacts our status and sense of belonging within a group. As humans, we’re driven to improve our status. Social media leverages this drive for status with metrics about number of friends, followers, or hits, and encourages us to stay engaged to elevate our position in the rankings.

However, studies by behavioral economists suggest that humans are loss averse. While we want to do things to improve our status, we want even more to avoid things that could put that status at risk or lead us to experience loss. This loss aversion helps explain why we hold on to losing stocks while waiting for the share price to bounce back, or why gamblers get caught up in a hopeless cycle of trying to recoup their losses. It even helps explain why high achieving athletes resort to performance enhancing drugs to maintain their identity as stars.

In a similar way students want to look good and win the approval of the teachers and peers they value. But, because humiliation avoidance, or the potential loss of approval, can be an even bigger motivator, many students will choose not to participate. The risk of looking dumb trumps the opportunity to learn. These students stay on the sidelines, as the fear of losing face overwhelms the potential benefit of clarifying a miscomprehension or adding an interesting thought to a conversation.

We need to adjust the factors in their cost-benefit calculation to lower the risk of loss and raise the potential benefit of participation. Here are five ideas for how to make that happen:

  1. Try before you buy. When students are confident, they’ll be less worried that their answers, thoughts, and questions will sound stupid. To build confidence, let students see how their thinking stacks up against their classmates’ before they reveal their thoughts to the group. By using clickers to poll and display student responses anonymously, for instance, individual students can see how their answers compares to everyone else’s. If a lot of peers agree, they might be more inclined to share their thoughts.
  2. Low risk trials. Paired or small group exchanges can take students further than clickers, letting them test out and refine their ideas before sharing with the larger group. Turn-and-talk and think-pair-share routines allow students to articulate their ideas. Just make sure to prep students on how to be good listeners and provide constructive feedback.
  3. Shared exposure. Enable students to speak on behalf of a group that has already talked through their ideas or questions. Not only does the risk spread across multiple students, everyone receives greater opportunities to participate.
  4. A Productive Error Climate. A couple of years ago, some researchers in Germany prototyped a framework for measuring what they called the “error climate” of math classrooms, which examines how students feel errors will be treated by the teacher and their peers.  If the teacher uses one student’s error to help clarify a misconception shared by many, then there is a common benefit to sharing wrong answers or thinking.
  5. Learning vs Performance. Clarify whether the lesson or discussion is part of learning or part of demonstrating mastery. When it’s part of learning, everyone should expect lots of questions and ill-formed thinking. Have an error routine, like “my favorite no”, and offer praise for good questions and strategic efforts. After the content is learned, expectations can shift to right answers, at which point the group should be building confidence.

None of us wants to be embarrassed by appearing incapable in front of our peers or others whose respect we value. Classrooms need to be safe places for students to grow, where the potential benefit of learning something far outweighs the risk of appearing dumb.

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