Dealing with reluctant student participation? Sprinkle them with "smarkles" after they answer a question!

Incentives for More Student Participation 

Sometimes, it can be difficult to get students to participate in class. Being a middle school teacher, I see it year after year and day after day: students feeling self conscious and apprehensive when asked to participate in class discussions or answer questions. Students participate for one of two reasons: they are either intrinsically motivated or extrinsically motivated. For the students who are intrinsically motivated to participate in class (motivated by internal factors such as wanting to do well or participating merely because they enjoy the experience), there is little you need to get their hands raised–their intrinsic motivation is enough on its own. The students who struggle are the ones who need extrinsic motivation–motivation by external factors, such as rewards etc. Below are some fun ways I boost participation in my classroom by taking advantage of extrinsic motivators.

Hand out “Lightening bolts”:

When I am lecturing or explaining concepts to my students, sometimes a lightbulb goes off for a student and they blurt out what I am about to say. This is usually the apex of what I am explaining or the big reveal that I have been leading up to. I usually feign being shocked or amazed and then slightly sad and say that they “stole me thunder!” I then walk up to the front of the classroom where I keep my lightening bolts and bring it to the student where they can clip it on their shirt and wear it like a badge of honor for the remainder of class. My students love it! After one student “steals my thunder” it’s fun to see them really start to pay attention to what I am saying to try to figure out where I am going with my explanation so they may have a chance to win the coveted badge of honor. This is a fun way to get students to follow what you are saying as well as participate.

Sprinkle your students with “Smarkles” (Smart Sprinkles/Smart Sparkles)

I came up with this idea recently and it worked like a charm! I finished the last of some seasoning while cooking and was about to toss the container in the recycling bin when I thought: “This is a nice container, I wonder if I could use it in my classroom for something…” Then, BAM, it came to me! “I should pretend to sprinkle things on my students… hmm what would I sprinkle? Something like fairy dust when they answer questions!”, and “Smarkles” were born! I covered the container with a fun wrapping paper I got from the dollar section at Target that I had on hand. The first day I introduced it, the students were very interested. I asked for someone to answer the daily warm-up question. As usual, only a few hands went up. I called on a kid, they gave me the answer and I popped open the top and as I “seasoned” the top of their head, I said in a funny voice: “Smarkles!” They thought I actually put glitter or something of the sort on their head. Some of the students were saying “I didn’t see anything!”, “Is there something really in there?!” to which I replied: “You can only see the Smarkles if you truly believe in the power of the Smarkles.” They thought this was hysterical and then they all wanted to get “Smarkles” and started to raise their hands more! It definitely got their attention and they thought it was fun.

Hand out Tickets:

I talked about tickets in my post on positive classroom management, but the use of tickets also applies here as well. Sometimes, when it is a slow day with student participation, I will bring out the tickets and the hands go flying up. Tickets are highly desired item in my classroom–mainly because my students love the prizes (extra late pass, sit next to a friend, toy from the “toy box”, work with a partner on solo work, etc). It’s a nice way to reward students for going out of their comfort zone in the classroom; they might not raise their hand to answer a question in fear they are wrong, but sometimes the desire of a prize makes them temporarily forget that fear.

Praise and keep it casual:

I cannot stress enough how important praise is for students who are reluctant to participate. They need to know that they did well, even if their answer was totally off; such as: “That was a great try, and I can see what would make you think that. Thanks so much for your answer!” or if you don’t tell anyone of them if they are right or wrong, they sometimes will have a greater desire to participate because you have not corrected anyone who has spoken up. I do this sometimes because they begin to see it as a guessing game where after each remark I say something oh “ahhh ok. Anyone else have a guess?” and “ohh ok, good idea, anyone else?” I think this helps make it less of a question and answer session and more of a conversation, lending a more casual environment that feels less like they are going to be seen as right or wrong. Also, remember that your students are going to watch and see how you respond to other students who have raised their hands–if you accidentally embarrass them or bluntly tell them they are wrong, other students are less likely to follow suit and raise their hands; therefore, treat all participation from students as if it were coming from a shy, non-participatory student and then perhaps you will get more hands up.

At the end of the day, remember that it can be scary for some your students to raise their hand in your class in fear of many things–being wrong, public humiliation, not wanting to look dumb (or too smart if “nerds” are uncool at your school) and sometimes we have to make the participation seem like it’s about something else by bringing their attention elsewhere (desire to gain a ticket, get Smarkle dust, guess the answer, steal the teachers thunder etc). Have fun with it, thank your students when you call on them and try to be as encouraging as possible!


-The Ardent Teacher


4 thoughts on “Incentives for More Student Participation 

  1. Allison says:

    Thanks for the inspiration. I have a particularly reticent section this year in the middle of the day. I’m trying to figure out a way to give them a wake up call for that post-recess slump. I’ll be using the tickets as Courage Coupons plus the lightning bolt idea for stealing my thunder.


    • I’m sorry you’re dealing with a tough group this year. I hope these approaches help you with them. I have always found that the more fun I have with my students the better their behavior gets. Maybe also try my “motivational Mondays” idea as well. In hard times my students have asked for a motivational/fun video every day and I had no problem dedicating 3 or so minutes to it. It saved my day, gave them something to look forward to and put everyone in a good mood. Good luck, you’ve got this!! ❤️


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s