Using the Class Group

Participation Levels

One unsung piece of research into group processes is an old study by Bales et al (1951) which looked, among other things, at the level of participation of members in groups of up to seven people. Various factors affect this, which need not concern us, but the most striking finding was the shape of the curve of the level of contributions from the highest-contributing member to the lowest.

Participation.gif (2757 bytes) In various conditions, the absolute level of contribution varies, of course—but the relative level between members holds to a constant pattern. The most vocal member contributes a lot, and it then tails away to the least vocal. This is a trivial finding, you may think—how could it be otherwise?

That is a fair point, but the moral of the study is that members do and will not contribute equally:some will always have more to say than others, and despite our efforts as teachers (we are of course usually the most vocal members), we are never going to achieve equal participation.

So stop worrying about it: just as you can't make Storming go away, you can't make everyone contribute equally.

What you can do, of course, is to ensure that there are no obstacles to any particular student contributing— that there are truly equal opportunities within the class. In school classes, there are conventions about raising your hand before you speak, seeking recognition and permission from the teacher. Although these sometimes apply in classes of older students, particularly in very large groups, it is often a less formal matter of "catching the teacher's eye". It is important to keep looking around to give everyone the opportunity to do that. You can also make efforts to catch a student's eye and give an encouraging nod to help them to get in to the discussion, or you can nominate individuals: on the whole, however, that should be done sparingly. Too much gate-keeping of speaking opportunities can lead to stilted exchanges, in which the teacher has to respond to every contribution, and the interaction between class members themselves becomes very limited.

Shutting up the vocal members is often as much of a problem, and there are many aspects to this common behaviour pattern — it is a matter of finding the right note for each excessive contributor.

All you need to do is to manage the immediate group situation: you rarely have any brief or authority to try to change someone's accustomed pattern of social interaction, but you do have authority and responsibility to give everyone the same chance to contribute, so active and up-front intervention — perhaps leavened by a little humour — is perfectly acceptable.


BALES R F, STRODTBECK F L, MILLS T M and ROSENBOROUGH M (1951) "Channels of communication in small groups" American Sociological Review 16 pp. 461-467: reported in ROBINSON M (1984) Groups Chichester; John Wiley

To reference this page copy and paste the text below:

Atherton J S (2013) Learning and Teaching; [On-line: UK] retrieved from

Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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