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Classroom Participation and
Discussion Effectiveness: StudentGenerated Strategies
Article in Communication Education · January 2004
DOI: 10.1080/0363452032000135805
3 authors, including:
Elise Dallimore
Northeastern University
Marjorie B. Platt
Northeastern University
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Classroom participation and discussion
effectiveness: student-generated
Elise J. Dallimore , Julie H. Hertenstein & Marjorie B. Platt
Published online: 04 Jun 2010.
To cite this article: Elise J. Dallimore , Julie H. Hertenstein & Marjorie B. Platt (2004) Classroom
participation and discussion effectiveness: student-generated strategies, Communication
Education, 53:1, -, DOI: 10.1080/0363452032000135805
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0363452032000135805
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Communication Education
Vol. 53, No. 1, January 2004, pp. 103–115
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Classroom Participation and
Discussion Effectiveness:
Student-Generated Strategies
Elise J. Dallimore, Julie H. Hertenstein and Marjorie B.
Classroom discussion is one of the most frequently used and often embraced pedagogical
strategies. In attempting to enhance participation quality and discussion effectiveness, there
is concern over what to do about students who are less inclined to participate voluntarily.
We examined the context of intensive graduate business classes—in which the instructor
had high expectations for participation, placed significant weight on the participation
grade, and cold called (i.e., called on students whose hands were not raised). In a
questionnaire, we asked students to identify what enhanced the quality of participation and
the effectiveness of discussion in this class. Qualitative content analysis indicated that
student responses clustered in several areas: (1) required/graded participation, (2)
incorporating ideas and experiences, (3) active facilitation, (4) asking effective questions,
(5) supportive classroom environment, and (6) affirming contributions/constructive
feedback. The results strongly endorse the practice of cold calling. The class instructor
utilized student responses to formulate future teaching strategies.
Keywords: classroom participation, questioning techniques, grading practices
For decades, classroom discussion has received attention by individuals attempting
to provide a rationale for its use and strategies to enhance its success. In this paper,
we adopt Ewens’ (2000) definition of discussion as “a diverse body of teaching
techniques that emphasize participation, dialogue, and two-way communication”
(p. 21). The benefits of discussion include helping students develop critical underElise J. Dallimore (PhD, University of Washington, 1998) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of
Communication Studies at Northeastern University. Julie H. Hertenstein (DBA, Harvard University, 1984) is an
Associate Professor in the Accounting Group of the College of Business at Northeastern University. Marjorie B.
Platt (PhD, University of Michigan, 1977) is a Professor in the Accounting Group of the College of Business at
Northeastern University. Elise J. Dallimore can be contacted at [email protected]
ISSN 0363–4523 (print)/ISSN 1479–5795 (online)  2004 National Communication Association
DOI: 10.10/0363452032000135805
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E. Dallimore et al.
standing, self-awareness, appreciation for diverse perspectives, and the ability to take
action (Brookfield & Preskill, 1999). However, one of the challenges in utilizing
discussion teaching is learning how to do so effectively. It is one thing to recognize
the benefit of engaging students in discussion yet quite another to master the skills
necessary to effectively facilitate discussion. As committed discussion teachers1, we
became interested in addressing issues of discussion effectiveness in our classrooms
when two of the authors facilitated a workshop where experienced instructors were
asked to generate strategies for enhancing student participation and discussion
effectiveness. When asked whether they would ever consider calling on a student
whose hand was not raised (i.e., cold calling) to increase the number of students
participating in the discussion, one experienced instructor instantly and emphatically
responded that she would not consider it. We were surprised at the intensity of her
response and that no other participants disagreed.
This encounter sparked our interest in exploring what constitutes quality student
participation and discussion effectiveness from the student’s perspective. The decision to focus on students’ perspectives stemmed from: (a) our recognition that
student and faculty preferences are not always aligned, and (b) the experience of one
of us—an instructional consultant—who has consistently observed that students
often responded negatively to the “well-intended” strategies of instructors. We
speculated that the extensive use of discussion in a class devoted to case discussions,
a class where participation comprises 40% of the grade, would heighten students’
awareness of participation quality and discussion effectiveness, and that if cold
calling were a problem, its extensive use should make students identify its problematic nature.
Common reasons cited for utilizing classroom discussion range from philosophical to practical (Christensen, Garvin, & Sweet, 1991). Discussion is seen as inherently
democratic (Brookfield & Preskill, 1999; Lempert, Xavier, & DeSouza, 1995) and
affords students freedom in the classroom by recognizing everyone’s right to speak
and be heard (Redfield, 2000). Reported benefits of discussion include students’
involvement in their own learning (Cooper, 1995; Leeds, Stull, & Westbrook, 1998),
learning through the contributions of others (Hertenstein, 1991), and the development of higher-level cognitive skills (Delaney, 1991; Etchinson, 1988; Ewens, 2000;
Gilmore & Schall, 1996; Wade, 1994).
The benefits of discussion are abundant, but not all students are equally likely to
participate. This disparity can limit the value of discussion for some students
(Brookfield & Preskill, 1999). For example, men and women differ in their modes of
group communication, including class discussion (Gilligan, 1982; Hall & Sandler,
1982; Maroney, Hertenstein, & Bedard, 1999; Sadker & Sadker, 1986). Researchers
have identified numerous strategies for encouraging inclusive student participation
(Arbaugh, 2000; Bump, 1990; Davis, 1993; Smith & Smith, 1994), including the use
of technology. These strategies may provide mechanisms to mitigate the challenge of
involving reluctant participators but cannot resolve this problem entirely.
Within the pedagogical literature identifying strategies to increase participation,
references to cold calling are rare. To be sure, at least one book on case method
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Quality Participation
teaching did refer to solicitation of nonvoluntary participation (Christensen &
Hansen, 1987). Similarly, Hansen (1987) discussed the practice of an instructor
beginning a case discussion by “calling on a student ‘cold’ ”; she defined “cold” as
“without previous warning” (p. 134). Rosmarin (1987) discussed her experiences as
a participant in a seminar in which different students were asked to lead off each
class session’s discussion by presenting an analysis of an assigned case. These
nonvoluntary participants were notified that they would be called upon with just five
to ten minutes to gather their thoughts. Rosmarin observed, “because we did not
know in advance who would be called on, we all came prepared” (p. 235). A less
direct form of what we would call cold calling was described by Frederick (1987),
who discussed the technique of asking all students to prepare one or two questions
about their reading prior to coming to class, which they may then be asked to share
at the beginning of a class session. In one of the few research studies on this subject,
Dallimore, Hertenstein, and Platt (2002) reported that cold calling did increase
participation in discussion in graduate accounting classes.
The lively attention paid to class participation and effective discussion facilitation
(Christensen et al., 1991; Davis, 1996; Neff & Weimer, 2000) impinges on issues of
evaluating student participation (Bacon, Stewart, & Silver, 1999; Gopinath, 1998;
Mundell & Pennarola, 1999). Some educators believe that grading student participation serves as a motivator (Lyons, 1987) and as a way of signaling priorities to
students (Bean & Peterson, 1998). Others (Lowman, 1995; Tiberius, 1990), however,
contend that participation in discussion should always be voluntary. No studies,
however, have focused specifically on assessing the impact of grading in conjunction
with cold calling on class participation.
Research Questions
Despite widespread acceptance of discussion teaching, several concerns about its use
remain. One concern relates to the quality of student participation. Although a few
studies have explored factors that increase the range and frequency of student
participation such as particular pedagogical tools (Fishman, 1997), seating patterns
(O’Hare, 1998) and instructor expectations (Scollon & Bau, 1981), they do not
examine classroom strategies to increase the quality of that participation. Thus, in
this paper, we examine factors related to quality participation in discussions,
What instructor behaviors are associated with quality student participation?
In addition to ensuring that student contributions are of high quality and enhance
learning, instructors are concerned about overall effectiveness of the discussion. They
are anxious that affording students’ greater roles in classroom talk may make it more
difficult to facilitate learning, relative to situations in which instructors control the
class more tightly through lectures. Thus, building on the findings of Christensen et
al. (1991), Davis (1996), Neff and Weimer (2000), and O’Hare (1998), we examine
factors related to the effectiveness of discussions, specifically:
E. Dallimore et al.
What instructor behaviors are associated with effective discussion?
These questions led us to develop a research strategy focused on students’ perspectives.
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Research was conducted in two graduate management accounting courses: a required and an elective MBA course. Fifty-eight students were enrolled in the
required courses; 54 were present when the questionnaire was administered, and all
completed it. Fifteen students were enrolled in the elective course; 14 were present
when the questionnaire was administered, and all completed it. Of the 68 total
respondents, 19 (28%) were female, and 49 respondents were male.
The instructor in this class was also a participant in that her reflections on the
student responses also served as data. For our inquiry, we selected classrooms of one
of the authors, who is an experienced and effective case discussion teacher, whose
classes are primarily devoted to case discussions, and who regularly cold calls
Classroom Context
The two classes from which the data were elicited both emphasized the development
of critical thinking skills that apply to management situations. They focused on
typical management tasks such as analyzing business performance and developing
action plans. The courses were neither highly technical nor exclusively quantitative.
Although varied pedagogical approaches were used in the courses—including team
projects and presentations, written case analyses, and lecture—the pedagogy was
primarily case discussion. Students in these classes were told orally and in the
syllabus to expect to be called on when their hands were not raised. To make sure
that students appreciated the linkage between participation and evaluation, the
syllabus for each course stated:
The most important requirement for this course is a thorough preparation and analysis
of the assigned case and reading material and active participation in the classroom … .
My expectation is that you will come to class having already thoroughly thought
through and analyzed the cases … . Your participation grade will be based on your
contributions to the class discussions and your participation in team projects and
Data Collection
A questionnaire was administered to students on the last day of the course. We asked
students to respond to questions regarding what professors do or say that: (a)
increases student participation and (b) either increases or decreases the effectiveness
of the discussion. Further, these questions were part of a more extensive questionnaire which asked students to self-report their participation in the course relative
to other courses they had taken and to report how their level of participation related
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Quality Participation
to factors such as their expectations, satisfaction, comfort, and the development of
communication-based skills.
Students were informed that the questionnaire was part of a “research project
on the effectiveness of students’ participation in class discussions as a learning tool.”
To avoid biasing student responses, the questionnaire mentioned neither cold call
questioning nor participation grades. Further, terms relating to quality participation
and discussion effectiveness were deliberately left undefined for students, so they
could apply their own internal criteria in responding to the questions. The response
format included both open- and close-ended questions; several of the open-ended
questions were the basis for this analysis. Although all responses were anonymous,
to ensure candid responses, students were assured that the instructor would review
the questionnaire only after final grades were submitted.
Data Analysis
Questionnaire data were open coded (Strauss & Corbin, 1998) through the use of
thought units as the unit of analysis because students responded in terms of distinct
thoughts that could be linked to specific behaviors. After multiple readings of written
responses, each descriptive behavior was coded (numbered and labeled). Once
coded, data were analyzed inductively allowing categories to emerge using constant
comparative analysis (Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Strauss & Corbin, 1998). Consistent
with this method of analysis, we were able to generate “general assertions” or
categories from the data (Erickson, 1990, p. 152) once data bore out a particular
phenomenon and similar themes emerged from multiple participants. This method
is consistent with Owen’s (1984) determination of a theme in terms of its recurrence,
repetition, and forcefulness. By noting the themes and patterns that emerged (Miles
& Huberman, 1994, p. 246) and through clustering (p. 252) of data, we created
broad categories of behavior that represent strategies for what students perceived
as higher-quality participation and more effective discussion. Six categories emerged
through the content analysis of written responses. A second rater coded the data,
and the reliability of these categories was determined by computing a coefficient
of agreement. Between coders, Cohen’s Kappa inter-coder reliability score was 97.5%
based on the independent coding of 197 pieces of data.
Our analysis of student responses yielded the typology in Table 1. The responses
clustered into six categories of faculty behaviors or characteristics that can enhance
the quality of participation and effectiveness of discussion: (1) required and graded
participation, (2) incorporating instructor and students’ ideas and experiences, (3)
active facilitation, (4) asking effective questions, (5) creating a supportive classroom
environment, and (6) affirming student contributions and providing constructive
Notable in Table 1 is the fact that graded and required participation is a major
category that emerged for both quality and effectiveness. Respondents repeatedly
Instructor/Peers Expand on Student Ideas:
“Elaborate clearly on student’s thoughts.”
“Explore concepts by students as they relate to the materials
“They take the students’ ideas and either expand upon them or let
the other students discuss the ideas.”
2. Incorporating
Ideas and
Experience into
Instructor/Student Knowledge and Experience:
“Knowing their subject and initiating discussion about it.”
“I think that quality of class participation depends more on
students’ background, experience, and preparation for classes.”
[NOT Effective (NE)] “I think the lack of work experience of too
many students contributes negatively to the quality of class
“Cold calling.”
“Fairness of cold calling.”
“Call on people and ask for their opinions.”
“Call on students.”
“The fact that professors call on most students to answer a question
increases my incentive to prepare.”
“Randomly appoint people to answer questions about the case.”
“Normally, students (foreign) do not participate well. The Prof.
must help these students by asking them questions.”
Grade Participation:
“They make class participation a significant part of the grade.”
“Weight participation ⬎ 1/3 of grade.”
“Make it a significant part of our grade. Although there are some
students who will not participate regardless.”
1. Required/
Real-World Relevance:
“Relate material to present day events/circumstances.”
“Indicate how the subject matter contributes to students’ skill sets.”
“If the professor grounds points made in practical experience, in real
life examples illustrating the pertinent concepts.”
Effective Content:
“Stimulating presentations.”
“Bring up interesting topics to class discussion.”
“Interesting assignments.”
“Good readings.”
Instructor Expanding on Student Ideas:
“Explore concepts presented by students as they relate to the materials
“Discussions are more effective if the professor is good at clarifying
and enhancing points brought up by students.”
Strategies that increase discussion effectiveness
Emergent themes Strategies that increase quality participation
Table 1 Student Responses Regarding Quality of Participation and Effective Discussion Factors
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4. Asking
3. Active
Ask “Crucial” Questions:
“Asking types of questions that is very crucial to each case.”
“Emphasizes key questions.”
Ask Clear Questions:
“Clear questions.”
Control Dominant Participants:
“They control windbags.”
“Not letting people dominate discussion.”
“Cut off students who are just speaking to be heard (no content to
Challenge and Probe:
“Challenge them to answer in more depth.”
“Pushing people to think.”
“[Say things like] I am not getting your point please elaborate.”
“Edge people on.”
Follow a Plan:
“Provide structured presentation of material.”
“Setting standards and sticking to them.”
“Stimulate and lead the discussion on the right track.”
General Discussion:
“Facilitate the flow of information among students.”
“Stimulate a debate and it will get students more enthused.”
“They make a controversial or debatable statement.”
Use of Questions:
“Posing questions.”
“They ask questions.”
Effective Questioning:
“Open-ended questions.”
“Lead[ing] questions.”
NE: “When a facilitator is looking for specific answers and does not
consider alternative concepts, discussion becomes less effective.”
Initiate Debate and Dialogue:
“Initiate dialogue between students.”
“Play devil’s advocate.”
“When they ask one person’s opinions and then ask someone else
who disagrees and challenges that person’s point of view.”
Clear Direction:
“Clear path.”
“They show a direction.”
“They direct topics and conversations to make sure that the material is
NE: “If [professor] does not provide a sense of clear direction.”
Guide but Promote Thinking:
“Provide directions without actually providing solutions.”
“They lead conversations in a direction without actually providing
“She is very good to build up the steps to the discussion, so that we
can come to a conclusion ourselves.”
Control Participation/Limit Nonvalue Added:
“Control class.”
“I wish professors would penalize grades for participation that is not
“Some students talk too frequently and value-less-ly that students
’tune them out’ which limits discussion.”
NE: “Letting students monopolize discussion.”
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“She encourages everyone to speak up.”
“Be encouraging.”
“Encourage participation.”
“[Professors] show their patience.”
Reinforce Student Contributions:
“Reiterate salient points.”
“Write thoughts on board.”
“Write good student comments on the board.”
Provide Positive Feedback:
“Offer positive feedback to students participating.”
“Accept their [student] views.”
The following are NE:
“Ridicule students.”
“Respond negatively to student’s comments.”
“If they are abusive or indifferent to your response, [or] they seem
“They encourage students.”
“Encourage participation.”
“They encourage students to participate.”
“[Professors] show their patience.”
“Exercise patience with students.”
Develops Trust:
“The quality of student participation is increased if the professor is
able to create and sustain a sense of connection and trust between
him/herself and the student.”
“If students have trust in a professor and are treated with respect,
they are more willing to participate.”
Affirm Student Contributions:
“Seek value in student responses.”
“Stress how everyone benefits from both wrong and right answers.”
“They value what the students say.”
Provide Constructive Criticism/Feedback:
“Make reference to students’ comments and correct them.”
“Helping to understand incorrect answers.”
“Use constructive criticism.”
“Timely feedback in participation.”
5. Supportive
6. Affirm
and Provide
Relaxed Atmosphere:
“When it is done in a more relaxed atmosphere.”
Strategies that increase discussion effectiveness
Emergent themes Strategies that increase quality participation
Table 1—continued
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Quality Participation
identified the importance of graded participation, suggesting that instructors should
“make it a significant part of our grade.” When asked what a professor says or does
to increase the quality of student participation, grading and requiring participation
were regularly mentioned (including responses which would be considered cold
calling according to our definition). For example, one student observed, “the fact
that professors call on most students to answer a question increases my incentive to
prepare [thus enhancing discussion quality].”
Various similarities emerged between strategies for effective discussion and for
quality participation. For theme number two, “Incorporating Ideas and Experience,”
students indicated that both quality participation and effective discussion should
involve expanding upon the ideas contributed by both instructor and students. For
example, students indicated that instructors should “explore concepts presented by
students as they relate to the materials assigned” or “take the students’ ideas and
either expand upon them or let the other students discuss the ideas.” Characterization of instructor effectiveness in promoting discussion focused on specific instructor choices. Responses included reference to effective course content such as “good
readings” and “interesting assignments” and further noted that knowledge and
experiences should relate to the “real world.”
Another example of similarities between participation strategies and effective
discussion practices can be seen in theme number four, “Asking Effective Questions.” Respondents frequently mentioned the value of effective questioning for both
increasing quality participation and for discussion effectiveness. However, the type of
questions noted as “effective” differ slightly. In response to quality, they commented
on the content (key and crucial) and style (clear). In contrast, responses to
effectiveness begin with the basic importance of asking questions, and then asking
questions of particular types (e.g., open, leading).
The instructor’s reflections on the student responses indicate that those responses
largely confirmed pedagogical choices the instructor made. The instructor also used
the student responses to identify areas for possible change.
… [T]he student-generated strategies were not surprising; I use them regularly.
However, what I hadn’t expected was for students to identify strategies as comprehensive and specific in nature. For example, the strategies included issues of designing
the course (e.g., how participation will be graded and evaluated), addressing instructional context (e.g., how the classroom environment will be structured), and facilitating discussion (e.g., asking effective questions, controlling dominant participants, etc.).
Further, I had not expected as much convergence between the student-generated
strategies for increasing quality participation and discussion effectiveness …
I have come to realize that one effect of cold calling is that students prepare better,
and well-prepared students make more insightful contributions, having reflected on
the course material and its relationship to their own experience. I recognize other
strategies can be utilized to enhance student preparation (e.g., pop quizzes, short
papers). However, cold calling goes beyond these by allowing me (and all students)
E. Dallimore et al.
to interact in helping the speaker to clarify ideas by articulating them orally, to
challenge current understanding by moving thinking to a higher level, and to apply
material to real-world contexts … .
Further, unsolicited feedback from a student in one of her classes allows us to see
how her decisions—designed to maximize student involvement—shape the overall
learning experience from the student’s perspective.
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… Because of your style, calling on students for answers and not waiting for them
to raise their hands, and being clear from the very beginning that this would be the
format, everyone came to class prepared and on time. With everyone prepared and
engaged, this elevated the energy in classroom and heightened and improved the
learning experience.
The instructor reflected further after receiving this feedback and utilized that
information to formulate teaching strategies for future classes,
… As a result of both student feedback and study findings, I plan to use cold calling
even more. Previously my motivation was to help individual students build valuable
skills (e.g., effectively presenting information orally, articulating and defending a
position, and responding ad hoc to queries). However, I now see cold calling as a
pedagogical strategy with collective value beyond the individual. I believe it contributes
to increasing quality participation and discussion effectiveness by transforming the
classroom environment.
… Further, to enhance critical engagement with course material, I will increase
opportunities for reflection before calling on students by more frequent use of
techniques such as pair/shares, having students note key points in writing, or simply
pausing to provide time for thought.
Discussion: New Research Questions
This study naturally leads us to ask new and different questions about our teaching.
For example, we are interested in exploring a range of strategies for responding
effectively to student comments, including ways to affirm students while also
providing clear, directive feedback about a response’s accuracy and relevance.
Further, we are interested in how particular pedagogical choices might shape
classroom climate in unintended ways. For example, we utilize cold calling to create
a more democratic classroom environment by including a broader range of voices in
the discussion. However, it could be argued that cold calling is inherently undemocratic because it does not allow a student to choose not to participate, thereby
reifying the power structures between instructor and students.
Even while raising these questions, we do believe that instructors willing to
explore cold calling in its warmer (even tepid) forms will produce benefits like
greater inclusion of students in class discussion. However, advocating cold calling
does lead to new research questions. First, we are interested not only in whether to
cold call, but also how to cold call, and the effects of various types of cold calls on
student comfort and outcomes such as student learning. Second, because this study
was conducted in a single environment (emphasizing graded participation and
Quality Participation
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extensive cold calling), we are interested in student perceptions of classroom climates
when the weight of graded participation or the frequency of cold calling is less
intense. Finally, we are interested in whether different student populations will
respond equally favorably to cold calling. For example, all students in this study were
graduate business students, and we are interested in the implications of cold calling
for undergraduates or for non-business areas like engineering, nursing, and communication studies. While we believe that cold calling and grading participation can
contribute to quality participation and discussion effectiveness in other instructional
contexts, we recognize that additional research is necessary to support such a claim.
[1] Author one has six years of experience leading teaching workshops and providing consulting
services in the area of discussion effectiveness, and has served on the staff of the faculty
development centers at two universities. Author two has 23 years of experience leading case
discussions and has a published chapter in one of the most highly referenced books in the area
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Received May 23, 2002
Accepted February 11, 2003