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Is Anyone Really Paying Attention [in my class]?

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Guided notes are handouts prepared by the instructor that include partial lecture notes or an incomplete lecture outline that students use to take notes during class.


The posting below looks at ways to increase student participation in class. It is from Chapter 2, Is Anyone Really Paying Attention [in my class]?, in the book Discussion in the College Classroom Getting Your Students Engaged and Participating in Person and Online, by Jay R. Howard, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco. Copyright © 2013 Wiley Periodicals, Inc., A Wiley Company. One Montgomery Street, Suite 1200. San Francisco, CA 94104-4594 All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Working Memory and Mind Wandering


Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning

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Is Anyone Really Paying Attention [in my class]?


Structuring Your Classroom to Facilitate Effective Discussion

Admittedly there are limits to how much a faculty member can influence the structure of his classes; for example, class-size limits are likely beyond the control of the faculty member. Still, an instructor can do things that make a large class feel smaller, such as putting students into small groups for discussion of specific questions and then having each group report back to the class as a whole. Many quieter students who are reluctant to speak out in a class of 70, 40, or even 20 peers are willing to participate in a discussion with 5 to 8 classmates. Providing opportunities for students to improve their grades through participation is a structural change within the control of the faculty member (Fassinger 1997). By giving credit for participation, the instructor is signaling to students that discussion should be taken seriously and is something that will promote the learning of both the student speaking as well as his or her classmates.

Communicate that Discussion Matters

Despite an instructor’s emphasis on the value of participation for facilitating learning, grading discussion is not a cure-all. In a study of six large undergraduate courses, Foster et al. (2009) compared the participation of students in sessions where students earned points for participation with participation in sessions where no points were given for participation. They found that nearly 40 percent of low-responding students in the no-points class sessions also did not participate in the sessions where participation was rewarded with points. While grading participation resulted in 60 percent of the low-responding students joining in discussion, we should also be concerned with the nearly 40 percent of low-responding students who continued to avoid all verbal participation in the classroom – even when it was a part of the course grade.

One way to address the other 40 percent’s reluctance to participate in discussion is to remember that all participation need not necessarily be in the context of whole-class discussion. Students can participate in small groups or even in pairs as well as through whole-class discussions. By providing opportunities for students to interact with each other (not merely with the instructor), the faculty member is creating bonds of acquaintance and friendship that will facilitate further participation and greater learning. This leads to a positive emotional climate in the classroom wherein students are more likely to develop the confidence necessary to participate in discussion.

Build Student Confidence Early in the Semester

While Fassinger (1997) concludes that it is student confidence, rather than faculty interpersonal style, that most influences participation in discussion, a faculty member can seek to increase participation through activities that build student confidence early in the semester. One approach for the first day of class is giving students a quiz over the syllabus. Put students into small groups of five or so and provide them with a list of questions that are answered in the syllabus: Which books must you buy? How many exams will there be in this course?  What is the policy for late work?  Where is the professor’s office? What are her office hours? Students complete the quiz in small groups and each group turns in a single sheet with all group members’ names on it. This exercise serves two purposes: familiarizing students with the syllabus and developing a positive emotional climate as students begin to get to know each other as they work collaboratively. While everyone is expected to get 100 percent of the points on this quiz, it establishes the norm that discussions are important and valuable and therefore merit being rewarded with credit. It also communicates that the instructor will not be the person doing all the work in this course. Students will be expected to be responsible for their own learning and understanding.

Be Explicit about the Importance of Discussion for Learning

When making participation in discussion a part of students’ grades (and even when it is not a part of the course grade), it is important to have a conversation with students about the importance of discussion for student learning. As we noted in Chapter 1, because the research evidence demonstrates that students both learn more and develop critical thinking skills through participation in discussion, we include it as a course requirement. Providing students with an explanation of why we structure our course to include expectations for significant participation in discussion on the first day helps to change students’ understandings of norms for the course. We will return to the topic of whether and how to grade students’ participation in discussion in Chapter 6.

The Reciprocal Interview: A First-Day Activity

Another first-day-of-class strategy for changing classroom norms is known as the reciprocal interview (Hermann and Foster 2008). In this approach the instructor begins by interviewing students regarding their goals and expectations about the course. Inevitably, the initial goal expressed may be to “get an A,” but with practice the instructor can prompt students to think about what they hope to learn and the skills they hope to develop in the course. Do they see the course as contributing knowledge or skills that will benefit them in their future careers? Do they expect the course to be difficult or relatively easy for them and why? Then, in turn, the students have the opportunity to interview the professor regarding his or her expectations for the course. What does the professor expect of students? What does A-level work look like in this class? What does the professor hope students will take away from the course?

The next step in the reciprocal interview is for the instructor to ask students about what they expect of the professor in the class. Students will inevitably begin to list such things as “I expect you to be on time,” “I expect you to be prepared for class,” “I expect you to treat students fairly,” and “I expect you will do your part to help me learn.” Then, after affirming the appropriateness of these expectations and pledging to do the best one can to fulfill them, the instructor can turn the expectations around. “Just as you expect me to be on time, I expect you to arrive to class on time.” “Just as you expect me to be prepared for class, I expect you to be prepared for class.” “Just as you expect me to be fair with you, I expect you to treat me fairly by being honest, doing your own work, and putting forth your best effort.” “Just as you expect me to help you learn I expect you to also accept responsibility for your own learning. I will do my part to help you learn, but you must do your part as well.”  Frank exchanges like these on the first day of class can fundamentally alter students’ expectations for a course and the concurrent classroom norms. Hermann and Foster’s (2008) reciprocal interview can also reduce classroom incivility and create a safe environment by making expectations for behavior explicit.

This is also an opportune moment to address the issue of students as customers in the classroom. When the student-as-customer analogy comes up in my courses, I respond with another analogy. If the student is a customer, then the instructor is the academic equivalent of a physical fitness trainer. The fitness trainer is not paid to make the customer “happy” and to never make the customer uncomfortable. In fact, it is quite the opposite. The job of a physical trainer is to push the customer to achieve at levels that were not previously possible. This will involve a lot of challenge and perhaps even some pain. If your academic trainer, your instructor, is not pushing you out of your comfort zone and not challenging you to do more academically than you think you are capable of achieving, then you are not getting your money’s worth of the exchange. This tends to cause students to see the notion of being a customer in a different light.

Guided Notes

Guided notes (Heward 1994) are another strategy for overcoming the norm of civil attention. We know that even the most well-intentioned students can and do lose focus during a class and especially during a lecture-based class. Guided notes are handouts prepared by the instructor that include partial lecture notes or an incomplete lecture outline that students use to take notes during class. Guided notes can make the organization of a lecture more obvious to students and encourage them to follow along. Guided notes can be aligned with PowerPoint slides and provide an alternative to making copies of the slides available to students. Many instructors worry, often based on their personal experience, that when PowerPoint slides are available to students on a course management website, students will take that as a license to skip attending class. Guided notes provide part of the information contained on the PowerPoint slides, but students must be present to complete the information by taking notes. Students must actively listen or they risk having incomplete notes at the end of the class session. Guided notes also have the potential to improve students’ note-taking skills as they learn to identify important information in the lecture. And students have to be truly paying attention, not merely paying civil attention, in order to complete the guided notes. This means students are more likely to be engaged and to ask questions in class. Heward (1994) found that students’ exam scores improved with the use of guided notes. They also have the advantage of forcing faculty members to carefully and thoughtfully organize our lectures, which can also lead to increased student learning.

Get Closer to Students

Research has shown (see, for example, Howard, Zoeller, and Pratt 2006) that students who speak up most frequently during class discussion are disproportionately seated in the front third of the classroom. Their location makes it easy for you to always call upon these talkative students during class discussions. Being in the front of the room, near the instructor, also encourages these students to pay attention rather than limit themselves to civil attention, while the more quieter students and those who would rather pay only civil attention sit further away from you. So, if those students won’t come to you, you should go to them. Move around the room as much as the physical arrangement of the classroom furniture allows. If you can walk up and down the aisles as you present material, do so. As you get closer to those students in the back corner, their level of attention will increase. Then, if you ask for student input while standing in the back of the room, those students are more likely to volunteer to participate. The same is true when you put students in small groups. As you wander between groups and listen to their discussions they are more likely to stay on topic. They are also more likely to ask for your assistance if they are unclear about the charge to the group or get stuck in their problem solving. If the rows are too tightly packed to allow you to move up and down them, you can still get out from behind the lectern and move side-to-side across the front of the room. While not as ideal as being able to move to the back of the room, the side-to-side movement can help refocus students’ attention and therefore improve their level of participation in discussion.

Talk with Students Outside of Class

Weaver and Qi (2005) in their study of students at a large state university campus found that interaction with instructors outside of class is positively associated with students’ participation in class. Increasing the quality and frequency of student-faculty interactions both inside and outside of the classroom has been nearly universally affirmed (see Braxton, Eimers, and Bayer 1996, 607). The lesson of this work is that faculty should both create and take advantage of opportunities to interact with students outside of class. Make it a requirement that all students come for a two-minute visit during your office hours twice during a semester – if for no other reason than to give you an opportunity to get to know them and learn their names. You can also use these meetings as an opportunity to check in with students who are struggling in the course and ask about their study approaches. If you see students at the campus food court, in the stands at the game, or at the local grocery store, greet them even when you cannot remember their name. Perhaps you will recall their name as you chat for a few seconds. If not, you can always plead that you have trouble remembering names when students are out of the classroom context and ask them to remind you of their name. Weaver and Qi (2005) have documented that these out-of-class interactions can have a significant payoff in terms of students’ willingness to engage in discussion during class.


Braxton, J.M., Eimers, M. T., and Bayer, A. E. “The Implications of Teaching Norms for the Improvement of Undergraduate Education.” Journal of Higher Education, 1996, 67(6), 603-625.

Fassinger, P.A. “Classes Are Groups: Thinking Sociologically about Teaching.” College Teaching, 1997, 45(1), 22-25.

Foster, L.N., Krohn, K.R., McCleary, D.F., Aspiranti, K., Nalls, M.L., Quillivan, C.C., Taylor, C.M., and Williams, R.L. “Increasing Low-Responding Students’ Participation in Class Discussion.” Journal of Behavioral Education, 2009, 18(2), 173-183.

Hermann, A.D., and Foster, D.A. “Fostering Approachability and Classroom Participation during the First Day of Class: Evidence for a Reciprocal Interview Activity.” Active Learning in Higher Education 2008, 9(2), 139-151.

Heward, W.L. “Three Low-tech Strategies for Increasing the Frequency of Active Student Response during Group Instruction.” In R. Gardner III, D.M. Sainato, J.O. Cooper, T.E. Heron, W.L. Heward, J. Eshleman, and T.A. Grossi (eds.), Behavior Analysis in Education: Focus on Measurably Superior Instruction. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole, 1994.

Howard, J.R., Zoeller, A. and Pratt, Y. “Students’ Race and Participation in Classroom Discussion in Introductory Sociology: A Preliminary Investigation.” Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 2006, 6(1), 14-38.

Weaver, R.R., and Qi, J. “Classroom Organization and Participation: College Students’ Perceptions.” Journal of Higher Education, 2005, 76(5), 570-601.