Why students don’t raise hands in my classroom


People learn when they are engaged. So, then, what is engagement? Don’t hold me to this definition, but I think it’s when students are actively thinking about a topic. Engagement is not just paying attention. It happens when concepts are evaluated, synthesized, compared, and all that. Engagement is when the mind is actively churning on the topic at hand.

Effective teaching happens when we do things that promote engagement, and ineffective teaching is when we do things that allow students to disengage.

Whenever I’ve had any kind of professional development about engagement, one of the first topics that gets mentioned is raising hands in class.  And the message is always the same:

No raise hands good. Raise hands bad.

And I agree with this.

It’s what K-12 teachers are taught when they’re being trained as teachers, and the concept is just as relevant for university faculty as well.

When we ask a question to a class, we shouldn’t do it in a way that requires only a small number of students to volunteer. This allows the entire class an opportunity to put their brains into cruise control. Some students, regardless of engagement, will never raise their hands. Over time, they’ll know that they aren’t required to engage, and they might not.

Good teaching keeps everybody on their toes and requires everyone to think. Calling out questions and asking people to raise their hands with the answer is the opposite of requiring everybody to think.

I want my students to emerge from the classroom thinking that they’ve had an exhausting mental workout. A gym for the brain. Zumba instructors don’t call on certain members of class participate. Likewise, in my classroom, everybody has to dance.

There is a variety of ways to ask questions and make sure that everybody is engaged. One great way is a think-pair-share. I know some people who use set of index cards and draw student names randomly for every question. If I don’t want to make a big deal about a question, sometimes I just call on a student arbitrarily. Sometimes I make a point of calling on a student who doesn’t appear to be engaged, though if this happens too often then some students might (correctly) think that they’re being singled out unfairly.

And, of course, the entire rationale behind clickers is that they prevent the disengagement that happens when only asking a small number of students raise their hands. But you can engage students just as well without clickers, but you don’t get the data in a digital format. In a very large lecture, using clickers could be an effective strategy if classroom management of group work is difficult to manage.

Another reason to not ask students to raise hands is that there is a clear gender bias at work. Men are far more likely to raise hands, and with many instructors, men are more likely to be called. So, by asking students to raise hands, men are more likely to be engaged by the instructor than women. This, obviously, is no good.

Do you have other ways of asking questions to the class that keep everyone engaged?

11 thoughts on “Why students don’t raise hands in my classroom

  1. I am teaching a new course this semester using team based learning. Every student must do assigned readings before class. They come to class, take a 10 question multiple choice quiz (a hard one requiring a lot of thought). They then retake the identical quiz in teams. The level of engagement is extraordinary. They question, debate, discuss, rationalize, and then question me (they have an opportunity to in a formal appeal session). It is great fun, and ALL students are really engaged. I have never seen students debate and discuss the way they are in this class.

    • How does the scoring work for the 2 different quizzes? And do you get many student complaints about team quizzes?

      • I am weighing the individual quizzes and group quizzes equally. I have NO complaints about the team quizzes, largely because the students learn so much from their teammates and score much higher on the team quizzes then they do on their individual quizzes. Individual quiz averages is about 60-65%, team quiz average is 85-90%. They really do learn from each other!

        The only complaints I get are from students who think my quizzes could be worded better. AND THEY ARE CORRECT! Luckily I have built in a formal appeal process where they can complain about my question and provide justification for why it is problematic. I would say 50% of the appeals are successful. Usually, the students interpret a question in a completely different way then I intended. If the team writes an appeal and it is successful, all team members also get that question graded as correct on their individual quizzes as well. Works great, but it is time consuming.

        • Sounds like a good system. I’ve thought about doing something similar after hearing about it a few years ago but haven’t mustered up the gumption to dive into it. Hearing that it’s worked well is really helpful.

    • I’m really curious to learn more about the group quiz idea….. do you let students choose their own partners for the group portion or do you pair the students? Do you have a TA or do you do the grading yourself? (I am at a small school with not TAs so grading takes a lot of time).

  2. This post comes at a timely moment for me! My goal this semester is 100% student participation. The “no raised hands” concept is new to me, but it makes a lot of sense and I’m going to be thinking a lot about it as I go forward. A lot of humanities teaching draws on a quasi-Socratic question/answer approach that, as you point out, frees up many students to sit back and become passive. I had written a blog post (http://goodenoughprofessor.blogspot.com/2014/01/everyone-talks.html) on the issue of getting students to talk before I read this, and it was eye-opening to look back and realize how many of my strategies amount to getting students to raise their hands on a larger scale. bertramlab’s team-learning strategy upthread is wonderful–I can see that working as a strategy to get students to articulate and defend alternative interpretations of a literary text (so long as I can anticipate what issues/themes in a given reading are going to be particularly polarizing). Thanks so much for all of this!

  3. In the medium-sized lecture class that I’m TAing this semester, we’re using an “online tutor” system that serves a similar function to clickers. It seems to be working reasonably well.

    I like stuff like think-pair-share better than just putting someone on the spot by calling on them randomly. If they have no idea what the answer is, maybe because they’re having trouble with the material, and they get abruptly called on in front of the class, it’s going to be embarrassing for them. Of course, I’m also used to teaching computer science students, who I suspect have a higher rate of social anxiety than most. But I’ve definitely been a student in classes where I would have been ready to die of embarrassment if I’d been called on to answer at certain points.

    In computational classes you can also have class sessions in a computer lab and do things like working through tutorials.

  4. Slightly tangential, but I wanted to share this little story that isn’t totally off-topic.

    A couple of years ago I was teaching a “capstone” class in Environmental Science, which I tried to be as engaging as possible. I had a guest lecturer in one day, a professor in my department who had won awards for his teaching excellence. That day’s topic was “Forestry”, a nice broad area to wander around in that happens to be a big part of his research.

    Early in the class he had the students get together in small groups (about 3-4 people / group) and brainstorm ideas for big issues in Forestry – what do you think about as an issue or a problem or even just an important phenomenon that relates in some way to forests and how people use forests. After 5 or so minutes he called on the groups to share their ideas, which he then wrote on the blackboard. So far, so good.

    Then, and this is the genius part as far as I’m concerned, he had the students send a text message to anybody they liked (friend, relative, whatever) on their phones – every student in that class had a cellphone. The message was to be the same question he’d just asked the class: “What are some big issues in forestry?”. Then, for the rest of the class period, students would announce they’d just received a reply, and what that reply was. This was fascinating to me for several reasons.
    1. The students could step away from responsibility for interrupting the class – it’s not my fault that my phone just beeped! My brother got back to me, with “lumber mills closing”.
    2. It was a quick-and-dirty way to see if attitudes among the general public towards forestry were similar to attitudes within a class of 40 Environmental Science students, who might be expected to care more about / think more often about such issues.
    3. I’d been hearing many complaints from other instructors about student cellphone use in class, and how to prevent it. This approach turned that completely around, making the students’ cellphones into tools of active learning.


    The no-raised-hands thing is interesting. Next time I get the chance to teach I’ll have to remember it and try it out.

  5. I am well behind the curve in commenting on this post (a year out! the internet has definitely passed me by at this point!), but it was recommended to me after reading today’s post about email questions to the class, and I had a small point to contend with: while banning hand raising might reduce the gender bias in terms of who is called on and who raises their hands, there is very little evidence that this would actually change the participation bias in a conversation. In fact, it might make it far worse, due to the tendency of men to interrupt at a higher rate than women. A little study here gives (unpublished) results of an informal study in the tech field http://www.slate.com/blogs/lexicon_valley/2014/07/23/study_men_interrupt_women_more_in_tech_workplaces_but_high_ranking_women.html
    While this is somewhat anecdotal, and I fully realize that all men are not Kanye Wests, I do feel its important to point out that the only way to reduce gender bias in conversations is to take active steps to reduce it. A no-hands rule is great, as long as you also have a no-interruptions rule and a no-dominating the conversation rule. Alternatively, you keep the hand raising but make sure to choose women to call on at equal rates, and regardless of your strategy, as the lecturer, you work to lead discussions that feel inclusive to all your students.

    • I was working under the assumption that the instructor wouldn’t tolerate interruptions at all. So this is an important thing to mention!

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