How to encourage participation in class, also at university


The interaction between teachers and students in university classes is crucial in any context, whether online or in person. But how can teachers make this interaction effective?

Self-awareness and the development of multimodal interactional competence may be the answer. This is a teaching competence based on understanding the multimodal nature of communication, that is, the different semiotic resources (words, tone of voice, facial expressions, gestures, gaze, or physical or digital materials). that intervene in interactions with students. By being more aware of all dimensions, it is possible to achieve better interaction with learners.

Encourage participation

Teachers can encourage participation in university classes by “engaging” their students through dialogue, pair or group work, debates, games or activities (which may or may not be web-based).

Interaction in the classroom is led by the teacher on most occasions. It uses questions and a combination of different semiotic resources to convey and negotiate meaning. Among them are gestures that, together with the voice, emphasize the most important information, gestures that represent concepts and help understand what is being asked, the smile that shows interest and closeness or virtual contact, which, like the smile , has a persuasive function inviting participation.

Dialogue allows students to take an active role in constructing meaning. The more involved they are in class, the more effective the learning is .

This educational model that seeks student participation involves interaction, reflection, analysis, and discussion . It can improve and ensure understanding and has an impact on students’ intellectual and personal development .

The question is: are university teachers prepared to encourage and manage class participation effectively in any context?

How a teacher encourages participation

The development of this competence, which we can call “multimodal interactional”, and the ability to use it as a mediation tool and support for learning can be achieved when teachers are aware of the following issues:

  1. The importance of silence , the waiting time to obtain the students’ response. In online classes, the digital environment means that this must be longer, due to the connection and the latency or lag between when the teacher says something and when the students hear and see it, or the time students need to write their responses in the chat.
  2. The complexity of interaction in the online classroom , where, unlike in the face-to-face classroom, students normally participate simultaneously, finding, for example, several students responding in the chat at the same time. Good management of this type of participation involves recognizing the contributions of all students so that they feel that they are part of the group and that their contributions and they are important.
  3. The positive effects that this interaction has on the students and its relationship with certain traits of teachers’ emotional intelligence , such as promoting the feeling of belonging to the group, the recognition of students as individuals and a group, or closeness.

Specific strategies

  1. To start the interaction, we can ask a question and contextualize it while maintaining eye contact with the students (in online teaching looking at the camera).
  2. To repair the silence of the students, we can repeat or reformulate the question, encouraging the entire group or a specific student to respond, recognizing the students who are writing in the chat, and encouraging oral responses in the case of the digital environment. All this with a welcoming facial expression and tone of voice and maintaining eye contact.
  3. To give feedback (corrective or not), we can use positive evaluative language, not judging what is said or to whom it is said. Hand gestures and head movements nodding, reinforcing and providing new information to oral discourse are frequent.
  4. When there are few responses, we can read, summarize or paraphrase each intervention with reference to the student, using their name and positive evaluative language followed by feedback (corrective when necessary). For example:

    “Marta points out / Tells us (…)”

    “Very good / That is very interesting. Keep in mind that (…)”, while she smiles and nods.

  5. When there are multiple interventions, you can acknowledge participation, select the most repeated or relevant ideas, and use positive evaluative language followed by feedback.

Something more than knowing how to communicate

It must be taken into account that multimodal interactional competence goes beyond the traditional concept of communicative competence. It can be defined as the multimodal literacy of the teacher to promote and manage interaction in class.

Although this competence has been studied mainly in subjects where the language of interaction is a foreign language or second language of the students , and in many cases of the teachers as well, it plays an equally important role in the teaching-learning process in higher education. in any context (face-to-face and online) regardless of the language of instruction.

On the other hand, knowing and understanding classroom interaction is essential to guarantee teaching effectiveness. This requires a certain degree of reflection and analysis. Teacher self-awareness about their multimodal interactional competence is the first step towards improving classroom participation and therefore learning.

Teacher self-awareness

Reflecting on one’s own teaching practice allows one to be more aware of how interaction takes place and its effect on classroom dynamics. The SETT ( Self Evaluation of Teacher Talk ), or self-assessment of teacher talk, is a tool designed to guide this type of reflection. It focuses on the description of what the teacher says and can be taken as a starting point for an analysis of interactional competence in the face-to-face classroom.

However, this tool does not evaluate multimodal communicative strategies, that is, the semiotic resources that teachers use to construct interpersonal meaning in addition to language, and it does not take into account the characteristics of the virtual environment .

Teachers can reflect on their communicative effectiveness through recording and viewing classes and a guided process that focuses attention on the relationship of semiotic resources used to foster and manage interaction in the classroom.

Author Bio: Mercedes Querol Julián is Professor of Applied Linguistics. Director of the PRODIGI Research Group (Personal and Professional Development through Digital Genres) at UNIR – Universidad Internacional de La Rioja