Tutorials: Encouraging Participation

Group work is only as effective as its members are willing/able to participate. A frequent complaint is that our students tend to be reticent. While this is true to some extent, accepting this as an unalterable fact of life merely exacerbates the problem and encourages students to go on exploiting that crutch. Tutors can work towards correcting this handicap.

Lay the grounds

  • Clarify students' expectations of the course.
    At the outset, find out what students expect, either through a short discussion or the use of a short questionnaire. The outcome may influence you in shaping the course, or you may have to persuade students to revise their expectations, but in either case, it will facilitate the matching of teacher and learner efforts.

  • Clarify tutor/course expectations of students.
    At the first meeting, make clear to students what is expected of them: course objectives, assignments, testing procedures, final grades, amount of work expected, attendance policies and so on. ‘Ground rules’ or a ‘learning contract’ may be drawn up to provide the class with reference points throughout the term. Spell out specific goals and tasks at each meeting and keep these more or less in focus (e.g. mastery of a certain subject, solving given problems, evaluating particular ideas).

  • Clarify prior knowledge.
    Do not assume homogeneity in students. Bring the less knowledgeable in the group up to the level of the more knowledgeable (e.g. through peer teaching) or group members are likely to have difficulty working in tandem.

The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach him accordingly.


Train students to prepare

  • Change students’ attitude from dependency on the tutor as provider or taskmaster to acceptance of responsibility for their own learning.
  • Avoid appearing to condone non‑preparation. If students are unprepared or ill-prepared, it may be better to reschedule the tutorial.

Convey a reasonable expectation of participation

  • Impress on students that participation is necessary and expected.
  • Make clear at the outset that students are expected to prepare, by:
    • setting high standards;
    • specifying the required preparations;
    • assigning readings in good time and in manageable instalments
    • rather than giving a long list at the beginning;
    • ensuring that reading assignments are reasonable in quantity;
    • ensuring that reading materials are accessible;
    • if necessary, assigning readings to specific students and asking for reports.
  • Show faith in students’ ability to unlearn undesirable habits and to acquire new skills.

Create a conducive atmosphere

  • Learn the students’ names.

    A man’s name is to him the sweetest and most important sound in any language.

    —Dale Carnegie
  • At the first meeting, allow time for the group to get acquainted. Tell students something about yourself and perhaps introduce ice-breakers such as the following:

    • Self-introduction
      Group members introduce themselves, telling the others something about themselves (e.g. interest in the course, films/shows they have seen recently, books they are currently reading).

    • Introducing a group mate
      Ask each student to introduce himself/herself to a person sitting next to them. After about five minutes, invite them to introduce their new acquaintance to the rest of the group.

    • Finding a ‘soul mate’
      Ask students to write down one or two adjectives describing themselves on a piece of paper to be propped up in front of them. Each then finds someone with similar interests to talk to for a few minutes before introducing that person to the rest of the group.

    • Reporting unique experiences
      Invite students to introduce themselves and to mention one thing they have done which they think others in the group have not. If someone else has also done it, the student must state something else until a unique experience is identified

    • Sharing feelings
      Ask the students to take turns at writing down on the board words or phrases that describe their feelings on the first day of class. Then ask them to write down what they think you as the teacher might be feeling. Compare and reinforce the joint student/teacher responsibilities for learning in the course.

  • If possible, arrange seats in a circle or semi-circle to allow easy eye contact among members.
  • Engineer, if possible, to seat quieter students opposite more vocal ones; sit among the students rather than ensconced behind a table.
  • Establish a non‑threatening environment. Feeling reasonably safe about revealing ignorance and making mistakes is conducive to learning and creativity.

Minimise tension

  • Take the first few minutes to ease into serious work with some informal chat (e.g. about some current event, a film being shown, canteen food).
  • Do not force students to participate till they seem ready; being thrown in at the deep end puts some off swimming permanently.
  • Be sensitive to ‘vibes’. If their needs and anxieties are consistently ignored, students will ‘switch off’.

Reward rather than punish

  • Recognise and reward participation. Acknowledge what has been said and give credit wherever possible.
  • Ensure that criticism is constructive and humane.

    A pat on the back is only a few vertebrae removed from a kick in the pants, but is miles ahead.

    —V. Wilcox

Tackle obstructive members

Problematic students (e.g. those who are uncooperative, inactive, domineering, late) cannot be ignored. Ideally, the group members should be encouraged to take disciplinary action. But usually they will find it easier to reject or accept these elements rather than confront them, in which case the tutor will have to resort to other measures.

  • Appoint a dominant student to be ‘secretary’ to make notes of the discussion; this, hopefully, will curb undue loquacity.
  • Delegate specific responsibilities to inactive or uncooperative students (e.g. to report on reading, comment on discussion).
  • Speak privately to the obstructive student(s) and ask for cooperation.
  • Bring the problem into the open. Present it as neutrally as possible and as a collective concern. Concentrate on identifying causes and solutions rather than attributing blame. Never humiliate a student, however problematic.

Recognise that there may be students who, when all is said and done, merely want to pass with minimal effort. Work out an agreement with them that is fair to them, to the group, to yourself and to the institution.

Exemplify a willingness to admit ignorance and accept criticism

  • Often, students’ fear of disgracing themselves interferes with learning and stifles independent thinking.
  • Show a healthy unconcern with impressing others or ‘losing face’. Assure students that it is safe to take risks within the group.

Introduce participatory activities

  • Buzz group
    This is one of the most effective and versatile techniques which can be used with various group sizes. Pose a question or set a task and ask students to talk about it with an immediate neighbour for a specified period of time (e.g. 5–10 minutes). Thereafter, students can recombine for general discussion or they may snowball (c.f. below).

    Buzzing can be introduced at any point in group work. But to be effective, it has to be used discriminately and purposefully. It is important that:

    • students are briefed on its purpose and procedure;
    • the task is clearly defined;
    • timekeeping is quite precisely maintained.
  • Snowball
    After buzzing, one pair joins another to pool resources (again for a specified period of time) and then each group of four links up with another. In the last stage, the tutor can move among the groups to listen in on the discussions or the groups may report back through their chosen representatives.

    Snowballing is useful with large numbers; but too many re-groupings may become unwieldy, and as the groups get larger, individual participation is proportionately reduced.
  • Brainstorming
    A problem is stated and students volunteer spontaneous responses in quick succession while the tutor writes these down on the board or on transparencies without questioning. Any suggestion is acceptable; the suggestions are evaluated only after the period of intensive brainstorming (e.g. 5–10 minutes).

  • Role playing
    This is particularly suitable for teaching interpersonal and behavioural skills (e.g. in management and sociology). Situations relevant to the area of study and drawn from practical, real world experiences are defined and students are asked to assume specific roles within that scenario. They then address a particular problem to attempt a solution.

  • Simulation
    Models approximating real life situations are used to examine the dynamics of a system or phenomenon, and for learning to respond to its continually changing conditions. Students are provided with relevant data and acquainted with the objectives of the exercise and asked to work through a problem or activity (e.g. predicting consequences, making decisions, correcting errors).

Try different approaches

Different approaches may be used to start off a tutorial. Below are some suggestions:

  • Devote the first ten minutes to a buzz group activity, brainstorming or role playing. The idea is to create interest and get students involved right from the start.
  • Begin by asking each group member to make one statement. Even if the statements are unremarkable they will serve to break the ice. Experience shows that if students say something in the first 10–15 minutes, they have overcome a critical psychological barrier.
  • Set students to work individually for the first ten minutes, writing down ideas and solutions. These are transferred onto the board or overhead projector and systematically examined to find the ‘best’ solution or ‘better’ ideas.
  • Appoint a student to provide at the start of a meeting a number (e.g. 3–5) of short, significant, controversial statements to be discussed and appraised by the rest of the group.
  • Ask a student to prepare a short presentation and either assign another student to critique it or ask the rest of the group to each contribute a comment.

Exercise questioning skills

Questioning skills are important in the teaching-learning dialogue and will be elaborated on in Questions: Asking & Answering. The following summarises some key points:

  • Have some questions prepared. But try to devise others in response to needs and situations as they arise.
  • Pose questions to the entire group. Call on individuals as a last resort.
  • Suggest that students write down their answers so that they feel less nervous when invited to speak.
  • Minimise use of questions which merely test recall as these are more likely to produce a question-and-answer drill rather than a discussion.
  • Such a question, however, may be useful to start off with because of its relative simplicity, as is also a question that has more than one acceptable answer and which is easy to have an opinion about.
  • Questions which address higher-level responses—analysis, evaluation, application—prompt more reflection and more diversified responses.
  • Avoid leading questions which betray your own views. Even if there is some predetermined or ‘best’ answer, it is probably better for the tutor to invite a range of answers from students and examine their merits before offering the preferred solution for comparison.
  • Resist answering your own questions; give students a chance to respond.
  • Guard against routinely approving or disapproving an offered answer. The tutor as the authority figure will discourage attempts at independent thinking and participation.
  • Exercise tact in correction. Encourage self-correction or group correction.

Maintain a low profile

  • Play down the image of authority.
  • Do not talk too much; do not monopolise attention.
  • Do not interrupt or routinely rephrase students’ contributions.
  • Avoid the role of arbiter; do not confirm or reject each response as it is made.
  • Do not provide all the answers; encourage students to look for themselves.

Practice good ‘chairmanship’

  • Be alert to signals.
    Take note of body language. For instance, a leaning forward or sharp intake of breath by a reticent student may indicate readiness to speak.

  • Be fair in the chair.

    • Encourage every member to be involved and provide opportunities for all to participate. Call on different people. If someone’s hand is always the first to be raised, suggest that other people be given a chance and call on someone who has not had a chance to speak.
    • While group interest is paramount, do not suppress or ignore individual needs.

  • Deal with conflicting views.
    • Acknowledge—do not ignore—differences and contentions.
    • Review a discussion to identify areas of agreement or disagreement.
    • Ask students to summarise any view with which they disagree before presenting their own; this often leads to ideas being clarified and apparent differences resolved or narrowed.
    • Remind students that with controversial or complex ideas there are degrees of concurrence; consensus does not require total agreement but a conclusion that no one is too uncomfortable with.
    • Allow constructive disagreements, recognise minority opinion; use these to enrich texture of discussion.

    When all think alike, no one thinks very much.

    —Walter Lippman

Tolerate silence

It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.

—Albert Einstein

Wait for at least a minute before launching a ‘rescue operation’; the students may be thinking. If they are to come up with considered responses, they will need time to think things through.

Curb impatience with group progress

They never attain wisdom who have no patience.


Groups vary in ability and the rate of progress. Forcing the pace may achieve coverage of course content, but it does not ensure that students will understand or remember it. Effectiveness is more important than efficiency.

Include some formal assignments

Formal assignments (e.g. essays, projects, quizzes) reinforce learning as well as provide regular feedback to students on their progress. This will help to reduce some of the anxieties that may arise out of the more fluid nature of group work.