Unfortunately, this common teaching practice neglects the potential of students who hesitate when engaging in classroom discussions.

In fact, researchers have found that teachers who wait just a couple more seconds between asking a question and calling on someone –  from the 1.5 second average to 3 seconds or more –  see increases in the quality and diversity of student participation.

Many other techniques can help increase student participation in classroom discussions, but allowing time is central to these.

With more time, students can process information, connect it to their prior knowledge, check with available resources, formulate a response and finally summon the courage to engage.

Going digital to increase student participation

The challenge is how to successfully take this approach in a face-to-face classroom environment, where time is limited.

While we can easily extend the time we wait for student responses by a few seconds, it's unlikely we'll ever have enough time in a single session for all students to engage equally and at a level we want them to using traditional means.

This is part of why online discussions — even for classes that are not otherwise online — are so appealing and productive. By getting students to participate in discussions in an online environment, you eliminate the constraints of time and space.

With an online component to a face-to-face class, students can read or watch a video introducing the topic, then have the time and outside resources they need to develop and present their own unique response to a question.

And, of course, that provides a fuller opportunity for students to engage with and learn from their classmates, thus fostering a healthy ecosystem for collaboration.

Debunking misconceptions around online discussions

Many of the downsides of online discussions, including the lack of in-depth engagement and the inability to moderate peer-to-peer responses, can be overcome with a combination of proper planning and modern technology.

One common complaint is that students have to be especially motivated to join online discussions. 

They have to open their computer, log in to their learning management system (LMS), and navigate to their class website to check for new responses.

Modern discussion forums solve this problem with native mobile apps, which notify students of new responses, prompting them when relevant and eliminating the need for proactive check-ins.

Another complaint about online discussions is that you lose the very human, face-to-face experience of seeing and hearing classmates.

But, with the one-click video and audio recording functionality provided by modern discussion forums, students can easily express themselves with more than just text.

Indeed, new functionalities in the LMS space enable educators to embed and integrate video into online content, which gives students the opportunity to engage with the content and with their peers.

This leads to higher rates of engagement, increasing interactivity and complementing the diffusion of theoretical knowledge.

For instance, the use of video integration for content published on a learning platform like Canvas — a cloud-based LMS — found an 11.5 per cent increase in the likelihood of garnering student responses, when compared to content without video.

Ultimately, such tools enable teachers to provide the attention and feedback required to maintain student engagement while ensuring every student is given a voice.

Modern LMSs provide a platform for expression that is flexible and user-centric, eliminating the constraints of time without compromising the social element we experience in classroom discussions.