Cultivating Participation & Engagement

Developed by Inés Vañó García


Students’ participation and engagement are key measures not only of motivation, but they also provide a way to formatively evaluate and summatively assess their learning. Facilitating participation and understanding engagement comes with some particular challenges in online/hybrid courses.

This workshop will provide a space for participants to think through what participation can mean in an online/hybrid setting, and to discuss concrete strategies to keep students engaged and motivated through the semester. Participants will have the opportunity to develop and apply participation and assessment strategies to a range of sample assignment types.

Learning Goals

• Discuss what participation can look like in online/hybrid classes.
• Implement concrete participation strategies for online/hybrid teaching for one or more assignments.
• Design an assessment and evaluation approach/plan for students’ participation in your class.



Participation and engagement are key factors in creating and building classroom community. These factors are already challenging in a face-to-face course, and become more so in a synchronous online environment, where the capacity to read body language and responsiveness of all participants are constrained. It is impossible to check in with students individually by making eye contact or by seeing how they relate to others in the room, and it’s harder to ask them direct questions of you and each other without making them feel the spotlight is placed upon them.

Student participation can take many forms. Under our current circumstances, we need to deeply consider what engagement means, how we cultivate it, and what purposes it serves within the contexts of our courses and our students’ lives.

Your class in Fall 2020 will likely be a mix of synchronous and asynchronous components giving students the necessary flexibility and accessibility to process the content material of your lectures, and the time to complete the required assignments. However, your expectations regarding participation may be different depending on type of assignment, and how it’s being done.

To help you start thinking about the multiple opportunities that your students will have to participate and engage with the course material here are some questions to consider:

Interaction: How are your students interacting with you and among themselves? How will you handle student questions, requests for clarification, and discussion? Consider online collaborative-friendly platforms that facilitate the type of interaction that you are envisioning. Synchronous meetings will allow for more spontaneous interactions among peers, but will also require planning ahead of time with clear and specific instructions to make sure that the goal is accomplished. While missing the spontaneity factor, asynchronous assignments allow students more flexibility to prepare and complete their contributions and, since they have more time, their interactions could be more creative and elaborated.

Multimodality: How can students participate and engage with the material asynchronously? Consider multimodal participation forms: low-stakes writing, audios, photos, videos, etc.

Time: Since some work will be done asynchronously, and taking into account accessibility issues among many other factors, how much time students will have to share their contribution with the rest of the classroom? How much time would they have to give and/or to incorporate feedback?


Here are several models that deal with participation and engagement (models extracted from TLC Handbook):

Class discussion offers students an opportunity to interact with each other, generate a shared knowledge base, and think through problems and issues as a group. The goal of these student-driven conversations is that as many members of the class as possible participate. However, class discussion can also be stressful for some students if they haven’t experienced it before or they don’t know how to navigate it. Many educators initiate class discussions by asking a series of questions and then working with student responses to generate momentum around a topic – questions could also be shared with students ahead of time giving them time to prepare while doing the assigned readings and other materials. Online class discussions could be challenging to manage, one might consider break-out rooms as an option. Break-out rooms allow you to split your class into different small sessions – check the limitations and requirements of the tool you are using. As a host you are able to time group work, and ask questions/send messages to participants while they work, being able to return as a whole class and discuss questions and/concerns. Remember to make sure that you communicate clearly the task before launching the groups/rooms, since your opportunities to redirect small group work are more limited. Depending on the tool you’re using, you may be able to set up breakout rooms prior to the meeting, bounce between rooms yourself, or allow students to “summon” you into a breakout room to ask questions.

Small group work encourages students to become active learners by inviting them to work independently of the instructor, while still providing them with a support structure within which to ask questions and test ideas. Students could work together in the same groups or new groups could be done for each assignment. Besides defining the task(s) and/or an artifact to produce, as well as a time limit, assigning roles within a group will allow participants to keep focus on particular tasks (i.e. note-taker, reporter, or researcher).

Peer evaluations, as another model, could be a way to address anxiety about assessment, and to give participants another opportunity to both reflect and report on their contributions to the group’s work. Remember that evaluating and giving feedback require critical thinking both to give and to process- be aware that teaching students how to respond to their classmates’ work could take time.

• Visit the TLC Handbook to read and learn with more details about other models.

Questions? Please share your questions, comments, concerns, and more with the rest of the participants through the “Cultivating Participation & Engagement” channel in the Institute’s Slack space.

Active component

[Step 1]: Imagine that…

Here are four possible scenarios that you may encounter while (online) teaching in the near future. While there is no single-perfect strategy to apply to each scenario, these situations can help you to consider new approaches to participation and engagement strategies.

Using hypothes.is, indicate how you would (re)act and engage in each of these scenarios. These questions may guide your annotations:

    • What type of strategies would you apply to deal with each scenario?
    • How would you interact with your student(s)?
    • How would you communicate your expectations to your students?
    • How would you process and/or move forward after each scenario?

[While completing this low-stakes writing assignment, think about how you envision participation in your course and/or specific assignments. Some questions to help you reflect on your participation and engagement: as a participant, do you feel comfortable adding your name next to your contribution? Or do you prefer to contribute to this assignment anonymously? Why? How would you like to receive feedback? How would you like to engage with your classmates’ contributions?]


[scenario A]

a very extroverted and eager student in the subject monopolizes the synchronous and/or asynchronous conversations/discussions online (speaking and writing in the different online spaces available in the class), and, therefore, the rest of the peers feel that they have been denied the opportunity to participate.

[scenario B]

You can observe and check that a student is very engaged in your class: reading the material, completing the assignments and following your lectures/handouts/presentations; however, the student doesn’t feel confident about the material and decides to remain in silence (not engaging in the discussions) because he/she/they are afraid to look stupid.

[scenario C]

a student doesn’t want to participate in an online discussion about a difficult topic because the student feels that she/he/they is not going to be heard and/or read since his/her/their political views don’t align with their classmates and/or professor.

[scenario D]

a student is very involved in the reading(s) and discussion(s) and is eager to participate in the multiple online spaces offered in the course; however, the student feels that he/she/they isn’t able to communicate and express himself/herself/themselves in “correct/proper” English.



[Step 2] Time to be creative!

Participation and engagement go beyond speaking in front of the whole class. As educators, we need to make sure that we create multiple options/channels for student participation and engagement outside class discussion.

Students may have had different experiences in other classes and they will have a range of understandings of what participation means. We must remember to communicate and explain clearly our expectations to students. It is essential, then, to provide effective models that help students know what the expectations are and how they are going to be assessed.

While doing this, the language that we use to communicate our expectations, objectives, and models will help students to navigate the classroom and required assignments while feeling comfortable, creating a safe interactive space and, above all, building a classroom community.

Now you will have the opportunity to implement some strategies into our own syllabus and/or assignments.

    • Option 1: draft a participation policy to include in your online/hybrid course (syllabus); or
    • Option 2: write the participation requirements for a specific assignment

Keep the following questions in mind as you do this work:

    • How are you describing/explaining to your students what your expectations are regarding participation? What does participation and engagement look like in your course?
    • What language are you using to address participation in the classroom and/or in a specific assignment? How much is participation worth in your overall course or in this assignment?
    • How are you communicating how students’ participation will be assessed and evaluated?

Share with the community of this workshop! Feel free to post a link to a Google Doc or other online writing space to the “Cultivating Participation & Engagement” channel in the Institute’s Slack space. Include a note on your document indicating if there is a specific type of feedback you’d like.


By the end of this workshops participants will:

    • rethink what participation looks like in an online/hybrid environment;
    • familiarize themselves with concrete strategies to cultivate participation and engagement in an online environment with synchronous and asynchronous components;
    • write up a participation policy for their online/hybrid course that acknowledges the current circumstances and the multiple modes of instruction; and/or
    • design an assessment and evaluation approach to students’ participation in a specific assignment.


Additional Readings on Participation and Student Engagement

Resources on preparing a lecture for a large class: Handling the uber-large Lecture: an Interview with John DeNero” and “Six ways to make lectures in a large enrollment course more manageable and effective” both from UC Berkeley’s Center for Teaching and Learning.

Check out these Visible Pedagogy posts on how to foster generative, inclusive discussions: https://vp.commons.gc.cuny.edu/category/teachcuny/discussion-strategies/ 

Gonzalez, Jennifer. “The Big List of Class Discussion Strategies.” Cult of Pedagogy. http://www.cultofpedagogy.com/speaking-listening-techniques/.

For some ideas on using online collaborative-friendly platforms to help facilitate group projects, see the TLC’s Guide on Educational Technology: https://tlc.commons.gc.cuny.edu/educational-technology/.

For more strategies about balancing students’ voices in class discussion check Chapter 9 of Stephen D. Brookfield and Stephen Preskill’s  Discussion as a Way of Teaching and Chapter Chapter 10 of John Bean’s Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom.

For more common scenarios of conflicts, check Conflict in the Classroom” (Handout by Kaneb Center for Teaching and Learning) and Crunk Feminist Collective Book (short selections about issues of microaggressions).

Teaching Difficult Topic (Difficult Dialogues Webpage + the Derek Bok Center at Harvard:  “Managing Hot Moments in the Classroom” (Inclusive Moves)

Crunk Feminist Collective Book (short selections about issues of microaggressions)

hooks, bell. “Conflict.” In Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdoms, 85–89. Routledge, 2009.

Kaneb Center for Teaching and Learning Handout and Resources on “Conflict in the Classroom” 

Zembylas, Michalinos. “Pedagogies of Strategic Empathy: Navigating through the Emotional Complexities of Anti-racism in Higher Education.” Teaching in Higher Education 17, no. 2 (2012): 113-25.

Zembylas, Michalinos. “Critical Pedagogy and Emotion: Working through ‘troubled Knowledge’ in Posttraumatic Contexts.” Critical Studies in Education 54, no. 2 (2013): 176-89

Graduate Center Ombuds Office: https://www.gc.cuny.edu/About-the-GC/Administrative-Services/Ombuds