Promoting participation

Maximising attention for the many

Hiya 👋

Hope you’re smashing the new year. This week, we’re continuing our series on attention with a quick dip into participation ratio

Big idea 🍉

Attention is the gatekeeper of learning—what our students attend to is ultimately what they learn. However, the things we teach in school are not always inherently interesting for students, and so we must pro-actively orchestrate student attention.

One of the ways we can do this is by getting as many students as possible to be thinking about the right stuff at the right times. This is what Doug Lemov deftly calls 'participation ratio'.

How can we increase student participation ratio in our classrooms? Well, small changes to the structure or sequencing of our teaching can often make a big difference.

'Cold call' questioning is a classic example. This is where we state the student name AFTER posing the question "What are the features of mammals... Alba?" rather than stating the name first "Peta... what are the features of mammals?"

This subtle shift requires minimal effort on our behalf, and yet it can lead to profound improvements not only in participation ratio (and so learning), but also in student confidence levels and equity across the classroom (with respect to prior knowledge and gender).

The cost-benefit of cold call is a complete no-brainer.

Other ways we increase participation ratio include:

  • Everybody writes Getting all students to write down their answer before sharing (assuming they can write).

  • Turn & talk Getting students to discuss briefly in pairs prior to sharing their thoughts.

  • Call & response Getting all students to repeat back key vocab in unison "I say, you say... OSMOSIS."

These approaches can even be 'stacked' to fully max out attention. For example, we might we get everyone to write down their thoughts, before discussing with a partner, before sharing via cold call (aka 'think, pair, share').

Now, the efficacy of these techniques relies heavily on sharp execution. Without strong culture and slick routines, a lot of learning time can end up being lost in the mix.

It's also important to recognise that high participation strategies are not necessarily highly visible. Getting students to spend extended amounts of time writing in silence can be one of the most powerful ways to promote participation.

🎓 For more, check out this study on the effects of ‘think, pair, share’, this paper on how cold calling can support gender equality, and of course: TLAC 3.0.


  • One way to boost attention is to increase the participation ratio of your class.

  • Techniques such as cold call, everybody writes, turn & talk, and call & response can boost participation ratio.

  • Done well, such approaches don't only build attention, but student confidence and equity.

For further updates (on the challenges and solutions of small schools, the role of ‘need for cognition’ in achievement, the effect of explicit teaching on scientific literacy, and the wide-ranging influence of female classmates), 100-word summaries, printable PDFs and more, sign up to Snacks PRO:

Now go drive that ratio up.

Peps 👊