Call it “active learning,” or “classroom participation” — every teacher wants to know how to motivate students to participate and how to nurture more involved students and fewer apathetic ones. With a little extra planning, that is possible. Below are four common reasons students don’t participate and techniques to solve those problems and spice up your lessons.

Reason #1: The content is repetitive.

Solution #1: Assess their prior knowledge.

This could be as simple as asking students, “What do you know about (topic)?” and writing their responses on the board. You could also try a pre-test or a graphic organizer. The goal is to find out what they already know (or think they know) and tailor your lesson around it.

Solution #2: Try skills grouping.

Divide the class into groups based on what skills they need to practice – not forever, but for a class period or two, so they can focus on what they really need help with. Take time to move between the groups and help them review. You’ll have more students engaged in the lesson, and they’ll get specific, focused practice time.

Solution #3: Let them teach each other.

Especially good when reviewing before a test: divide the class into groups and give each group a topic. Set some guidelines and then let them teach each other. Encourage them to do interesting activities – write tests for each other, design review games, etc. – and evaluate each group on the accuracy of their content, the creativity of their approach, and how well they work together as a team.

Reason #2: The content is too hard.

Solution #1: Allow anonymous questions.

Put out a “question box” where students can submit questions any time. Give each student an index card and ask them to write something about the reading assignment they did for homework. If they don’t have a question, instruct them to write a comment on the reading. Collect the cards and use them to lead a class discussion. You’ll easily recognize what parts of the reading confused a lot of students and they won’t feel embarrassed.

Solution #2: Allow them to work together.

When students bring in their homework, do a quick survey for completeness, then put them in pairs and let them review the homework together. Encourage them to make changes if their partner’s answer looks right. When they’ve finished, review as a class. Students may be less embarrassed to share a group’s answer than their own, and you may be able to complete the review more quickly.

Solution #3: Try a jigsaw approach.

If you’re introducing new, difficult content, divide the class into groups and ask each group to master only one portion of it at a time. Ask them to do a reading on their topic – to become the class “experts” on that subject. Then split up the class into new groups that include one “expert” on each topic. Ask these new groups to work together to write an essay or complete a worksheet that requires information about all the topics, learning from each other in the process.

Reason #3: There’s too much information to present in too short a time.

Solution #1: Keep it “bite-sized.”

If you have a lot of information to convey, re-arrange your lesson plan so you never lecture for more than 10-15 minutes. Break up large concepts into smaller sections – give a brief lecture, then do an activity to help it “sink in.” Repeat this process over several days. You’ll increase participation and improve comprehension, too.

Solution #2: Keep them busy.

Don’t allow students to stare into space while you talk. Give them something to stay connected. Try “fill in the blank” lecture notes. Delete key words and phrases in your lecture notes to create a “fill in the blank” worksheet. Then ask students to fill in the worksheet while you lecture.

Solution #3: Look into the future.

Before a lecture, give students a prediction activity. For example, tell them you will be lecturing on Shakespeare and ask them to predict what you will say, or give them a set of true/false statements and ask them to make their best guesses. When the lecture is over, have a class discussion and evaluate how accurate student predictions were.

Reason #4: The lesson emphasizes the teacher, not the students.

Solution #1: Keep them busier than you are.

Re-imagine your classroom as a place where students are busier than you are. Keep the “sit still and let me talk to you” moments as brief as possible; get those kids working! Give them worksheets, activities, discussions, and projects. Stay busy by moving from student to student or group to group, correcting, evaluating, or providing feedback.

Solution #2: Use groups.

Homogeneous grouping? Heterogeneous grouping? Tracking? Forget the buzzwords: having students work in groups is one of the best ways to increase student participation. Don’t keep them in the same groups all the time – mix it up based on mastery levels or interests.

Solution #3: Give them a voice and a choice.

Do students ever get a “say” in your classroom? Kids often tune out because they feel like their ideas don’t matter. Show them their opinions are important, and they’ll pay better attention and speak up more in class.

There will always be some unreachable student who won’t respond, even with these efforts. But if you give these a try, you may be pleasantly surprised at the previously unreachable students who just might join in!