Classroom Participation & Peer Groups: Make The Most Of Your Class

Classroom Participation & Peer Groups: Make The Most Of Your Class
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How To Make The Classroom Work In Your Favor

This article is part three of a four part series about pre-writing strategies for writing a response paper. So far we have covered important vocabulary and how to read and take notes on the book you are reading. Now it’s time to look at talking about the book in class.

There are two ways to talk about a book in class:

  1. Teacher or professor led discussion.
  2. Peer groups.

For this article you will learn all about how to make the most of either of these. Let’s get to it.

Make Classroom Participation Work For You

Here is the worst way a teacher or professor can encourage classroom participation: he or she either says at the beginning of the year, or makes note in a syllabus that “classroom participation is a percentage of your grade.” I cannot imagine anything that was ever less motivating for me to talk in class than to be reminded that if I do not speak up, my grade will go down. Fantastic.

Yes, classroom participation is often part of your grade, but you should look at it as icing on the cake. You are about to make the most out of a classroom experience, and for making the most of it, your grade goes up. Groovy! …or something.

Here is a truth that I will continue to mention - as though I am beating you over the head with an informational, metaphorical hammer - until it sinks in: one of the best ways to learn is to make yourself a teacher. Understand this: Good teachers are not silent. They are always thinking and connecting ideas. They are always looking for the best way to learn. They are always looking for way to brag about what they have learned in the past. They understand the subject, they know all about it, they know there is always more to learn, and they are interested in sharing their knowledge in an easy-to-understand and organized way. Talk in class; it’s the best way to learn.

That, by the way, holds true whether or not you’re in a peer group or an instructor led discussion.

Here’s a StudyExpert Story. I Promise It’s Short

When I was in college I took a class called Ethnic Literature. The professor was a young and obviously new. The class structure was as such

1. The professor talks about a book we’re going to read. We cover the subject and pre-reading opinions of the book.

2. Reading the book.

3. Talking about the book in class.

When it came time to talk about the book in class the professor posed a question and waited for someone to talk. Then he waited longer. He kept waiting. He looked to me, his deer-in-headlight eyes pleading. I spoke up.

Now, imagine how much fun the peer groups were in that class. They were not.

The value of your education is up to you. I recognized that for the topic, as a professor, he knew what he was talking about. For the rest of the semester he and I ran that classroom; I do not regret that.

The rest of this article will be spent talking about how to make the most of classroom participation and peer groups – why? These experiences, which are up to you to make the most of, all build the quality of your response paper. Writing a paper is not just reading a book then sitting at a computer with a word processor open, there is much to do before that.

You will learn how to talk in class.

Talk With Confidence, No Matter What Your Level of Expertise Is

If you have been following along, you have read your book and you have great notes on it. To expand on this: You have notes on key points in the book and you have notes on how the book made you feel. You have underlined, quoted and otherwise familiarized yourself with the book as much as you can. That said, why not say something about all that hard work?

Be honest and talkative about what you’ve learned; it’s the best way to expand your reflections on the book and have a broad knowledge of the topic when you write your paper.

What if my peer group is something awful:

You may find, while working in your peer group, you’re the only soul to know anything about the subject (meaning: you were stuck in a group of lazy students who did not do their work because they know you’re smart and can bring them up to speed). You can get angry

This is the kid who got the peer group full of lazies. Cheer up, kid.

about this, and you have the right to be – but you also need to be rational and see if you can work their laziness to your favor. That means it’s time to play a game:

The Take-What-They-Don’t-Know-And-Make-Them-Topic-Points-For-Yourself™ Game!

Consider what they do not know, and think about that in terms of what you do know about it, if they raise any questions (even if in their own ignorance) that makes you stop and think for a minute. Make the most of it.

What will these kind souls think of your over-achiever attitude? When the devil did that ever matter?

Then again, you might be in a great peer group:

Or, you’ll find yourself in a peer group of fine, academically-exceptional students, who are all sharing ideas, learning together and figuring out the unknown in a fun learning quest!

Either way, be confident – you’ve been following along, doing your work, and you have things sorted for yourself (and you’re only responsible for your own education, anyway).

One more thing to keep in mind:

By the way, so what if you find that you do not have things totally sorted out, you did not understand the book, and your notes are terrible? Talk anyway, ask questions, and never have the patience to be ashamed of not understanding. You happen to be fully capable of learning (or you would not be here). To quote Whitman, “Now, voyager, sail thou forth, to seek and find.”

For the proud over-achiever:

For more information, take a look at this article by Trent Lorcher about working and proofreading in a peer group. This is helpful to you because he’s a teacher and this article was written for teachers. If you’re reading this, you may well be aware that it works in your favor to know teacher expectations. What a better way to learn than to see what teachers are talking amongst themselves about in terms of education.

Now What?

You are in class. You talk in class. Slowly but surely you are learning how to make the most of it. Whether you are the student who has discussions with your teacher or professor that leave the classroom stunned and mildly envious, or whether you are making yourself the charmer of the peer group, gaining all you can to make your response paper as wonderful as you know it can be: What do you do to remember all that has been discussed?

KWL & Cornell (It rhymes, so you’ll remember it, right?)


Do you know why this girl is so happy? Because she’s being proactive in her peer group!

Classroom discussion, whether they be instructor-led or in peer groups is a great time for two note-taking strategies that will help you record and remember key points from class.

The first is Cornell. For an in-depth discussion about how to take Cornell notes, click your heart out – I have an article on it already. The point of taking Cornell notes during a classroom discussion is that it puts points and main ideas in order. You have a section for details, a section for cues and a section for summary. This will help you quickly find points that flash to your memory when you are writing your response paper.


The second note-taking strategy is called KWL, for more information on that, see this article {link here} that gives you a more detailed explanation of how KWL works. For your convenience, I’ve made a media file that you can print out – it’s a simple table that uses the KWL strategy. In short, the KWL is a three column table:

Column 1: What you know.

Column 2: What you don’t know.

Column 3: What you’ve learned.

The strategy you use depends on preference and what will work best for you. Because KWL is rather simple, you might find yourself doing mini-KWLs with your Cornell notes. The goal always is to make these strategies work for you, not to keep you doing things that eat up all your time only to prove in vain. Give them a try, see what’s good.

To help you, here’s a link that explains KWL more and also tells you about a couple other handy organizers: the Venn Diagram and Bubble Charts

All Together Now! (My snappy phrase for a conclusion).

The #1 way to make the most of your education is to be as engaged as you can be in the learning process.

For a thorough and thought-out response paper that will make your teacher or professor’s heart smile, you want a mixture of:

Notes from your book

Your opinion

What you’ve learned in class

I like this image, I won’t lie. You’ll see it a lot in this series.

You can make the most of this through classroom discussion led by your teacher or through peer groups by being prepared (having read the book, thought about and taken some notes about the book, and some simple note-taking strategies in class). Having talked with your teacher or professors and having a handle on the opinions of your peers (whether they know what they are talking about or not) will blend in with your opinion to lead you one step closer to writing that grade A paper.