Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences 51 ( 2012 ) 516 – 522
1877-0428 © 2012 Published by Elsevier Ltd. Selection and/or peer review under responsibility of Prof. Ayşe Çakır İlhan
Student’s participation in classroom:What motivates them to speak
Mohd. Yusof Abdullahª**, Noor Rahamah Abu Bakarª & Maizatul Haizan Mahbobª
ª Faculty of Social Science & Humanities, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia
Students are encouraged to actively participate in classroom. Nevertheless, many of them are still reluctant to speak up. This
paper discusses the reasons for students to speak up in the class. Discussion is based on focus group interviews conducted on
three groups of active students and three groups of passive students identified through a five weeks observation on three
classrooms at the Faculty of Social Science and Humanities, The National University of Malaysia. The study found that the size
of a classroom, personalities of the instructor and students and the perception of peers influenced the students to speak up in
Keywords: active participation, passive participation, learning process, verbal engagement, learning environment.
In any formal education, most of learning activities take place in a classroom. Classroom is a built-in environment
where formal learning process takes place. It is an important context where both students and instructor come into
contact to share information in their quest for knowledge. For the instructor, classroom time is a golden opportunity
to meet face to face with the students, delivering the teaching material effectively with the aim to ensure that
students are learning what is being taught. On the other hand, the students are expected to be presence on time and
participate actively to absorb, seek and apply the skill and knowledge shared in the classroom or other learning
activities. These complementing engagements between lecturers and students do generate conducive classroom
A conducive classroom environment involved two-way interaction between students and instructors. This type of
classroom environment will stimulate learning and makes both the instructor and students feel satisfied, which
eventually leads to effective learning process. According to Wade (1994), most students can obtain the benefits such
as the enjoyment of sharing ideas with others and learn more if they are active to contribute in class discussion.
Effective learning process occurred when both instructors and students interact and actively participate in the
learning activities. Nevertheless, as we often hear from the academic world, students still do not actively participate
or become passive in the classroom despite encouragements and use of various teaching methods by the instructors
to stimulate active participation from the students. The concern on the students participation leads a study to
investigate the culture of student participation in the learning process. The objectives of the study are to identify
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E-mail address: email@example.com.
© 2012 Published by Elsevier Ltd. Selection and/or peer review under responsibility of Prof. Dr. Ayse Cakir Ilhan
Available online at www.sciencedirect.com
© 2012 Published by Elsevier Ltd. Selection and/or peer review under responsibility of Prof. Ayşe Çakır İlhan
Mohd. Yusof Abdullah et al. / Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences 51 ( 2012 ) 516 – 522
forms and level of participation and to examine the factors influenced students to actively participate in classroom.
This paper highlights the reasons that motivate students to speak up in classroom. The discussion is based on the
information gauged from the students during focus group interviews.
2. Literature Review
Simply defined, learning is acquiring new or modifying existing knowledge, skills or behaviours. Therefore, if
learning is defined as quest for knowledge, skills or behaviours, then students need to be active in that quest.
Students must be proactive to seek the knowledge by seeking as well as receiving information in an outside
classroom. How the students seek and receive information are usually reflected in their behaviours in the
classroom. The behaviours of students in classroom may range from passive to active participations. They may just
sit quietly, taking notes, listening, doing something else, or asking questions, giving opinions, or answering
questions posed (Mohd Yusof, et al 2011; Hussein, 2010; Bas, 2010). The first four is a passive type of behaviours
while the latter is an active type of classroom behaviours.
Liu (2001) elaborated four types of student behaviours in the classroom as full integration, participation in the
circumstances, marginal interaction, and silence observation. In full integration, students engage actively in the class
discussion, know what they want to say and what they should not say. Their participation in class is usually
spontaneous and occurs naturally (Zainal Abidin 2007). Participation in the circumstances occurs when students
influenced by factors, such as socio-cultural, cognitive, affective, linguistic, or the environment and these often lead
to student participation and interaction with other students and instructors become less and speak only at appropriate
time. In marginal interaction, students act more as listeners and less to speak out in the classroom. Unlike the
students who actively participate in the classroom discussions, this category of students prefer to listen and take
notes than involved in the classroom discussion. Lastly, in silent observation, students tend to avoid oral
participation in the classroom. They seem to receive materials delivered in the classroom by taking notes using
various strategies such as tape-recording or writing.
Based on the various types of classroom behaviours, to be an active learners, whenever in the classroom, students
must engage actively by playing the roles of information seekers. The acts of asking questions, give opinions or
simply answering questions posed by the instructor or fellow students are examples of active type of classroom
participation. According to Davis (2009), student’s enthusiasm and willingness to participate in a classroom through
these verbal engagements will create a conducive classroom environment.
Past studies have shown that there are several factors influenced the student’s participation in the process of
learning. The first factor lies in the personality of the students. Students with high self efficacy showed better
academic achievement and participating more in the classroom (Pajares, 1996 & Schunk, 1995). Self-efficacy trait
with displaying more of that curiosity and exploring urge would motivate students to become more active and
positive reciprocity (Rahil, Habibah, Loh, Muhd Fauzi, Nooreen, Maria Chong, 2006). Thus, if students’ self
efficacy is high, it will enhance their confident level to become more active and speak more in the classroom. They
will show higher interest to learn more and know more with asking questions, giving opinions and discussing the
topics in the classroom. Students can become passive in classroom discussion due to the self-limitations, such as
cannot focus during lecture or learning time, fear of offense (Siti Maziha, Nik Suryani & Melor, 2010), low levels of
self-confidence, do not make preparations before class, fear of failing to show their intelligence, fear that their
answers will be criticized by the lecturers and the feelings of confusion, thus becoming less engaged in classroom
discussions (Fassinger, 1995; Gomez, Arai & Lowe, 1995).
The second important factor that affects the students to participate actively in the classroom is the traits and skills
of the instructor. Traits that have been shown by instructor, such as supportive, understanding, approachable,
friendliness through positive nonverbal behaviour, giving smiles and nodded for admitting the answers that are
given by students (Siti Maziha, Nik Suryani & Melor, 2010), affirmative and open-mindedness (Dallimore,
Hertenstein & Platt, 2004; Fassinger, 1995; 2000) also contributed to the students active participation in the
518 Mohd. Yusof Abdullah et al. / Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences 51 ( 2012 ) 516 – 522
classroom. These positive traits give a motivational effect on students to actively participate in classroom. A study
conducted by Siti Maziha, Nik Suryani & Melor (2010) which aims to examine the influence of factors that make
the participation of undergraduate students in Malaysia found that the traits shown by instructors play an important
role in providing incentives for students to participate in class discussions.
Apart from the positive qualities shown by instructor to encourage active students participation in classroom
discussion, the skills of the instructor may also affect the classroom environment. For example, a study by
Nurzatulshima, Lilia, Kamisah & T Subahan (2009) on three experienced science teachers through observation in
classroom, interview with students and analysis of students’ documents for the purpose to explore the way teachers
managing their students in order to increase their participation in science practical work showed that student
participation in science practical class is high when the teacher divided the students into three to five in a group and
delegating the work, patrolling and checking the students’ progress during practical session, giving out positive
rewards and friendly cooperation from lab assistant in monitoring students. The variety of teaching techniques
employed by the teachers will encourage the students to be more active, not feel bored or depressed during the class.
Another important factor that influenced the students to speak up in class is the perception of classmates. One
important finding from the study by Siti Maziha, Nik Suryani & Melor (2010) on undergraduate students in the
classroom of a university in Malaysia found that the traits shown by peers or classmates play an important role in
providing incentives for students to participate in class discussions. Besides that, Cayanus & Martin (2004) found
that students who are open-mindedness, give a motivational effect on other students to actively participate in class.
Environmental factor such as the size of classroom also affect the motivation of students to engage verbally in
classroom. A study conducted by Shaheen, Cheng, Audrey & Lim (2010) aims to explore the perceptions of 172
postgraduate students from three graduate programmes in the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication &
information, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore found that 90% of students felt that they prefer to
participate in discussions in small group as compared with in bigger classroom. A classroom equipped with proper
lights, fan or air conditioning, and other basic facilities will make students to feel comfortable and may encourage
them to participate in the learning activities.
Based on these selected past studies and literature, it can be conclusively proven that being active in classroom
discussion will make the students to learn more. However, the instructor and the education provider must take into
consideration the factors that stimulate or hinders the students to be active learners in the classroom.
This study aims to investigate the culture of student participation in the learning process. The focus of the study is
on the issue of students’ involvement in the classroom. The study was conducted on students of Faculty of Social
Sciences and Humanities, at the National University of Malaysia. The research design employed in the study was
observation on classrooms and focus group discussion or FGD. Observation was done on three classes, namely two
undergraduate classes at second year (Class 1) and third year (Class 2) respectively and one postgraduate class
(Class 3). The number of students in each class are 39, 31, and 29 respectively. The purpose of observation is to
identify the forms and level of participation and subsequently to categorized students from those classrooms for
focus group discussion. Observation was done for a period of 5 weeks lectures. Their forms and frequency of
participation are recorded throughout the lecture hours.
The focus group discussions were then conducted on six groups of students, comprising three groups each of
active and passive students from the three classes. Active and passive students were identified by their number of
participations in the classroom throughout the five weeks observation. Each group comprised of six students. Each
of the discussions lasted for between one to two hours. The students are asked questions on the factors that motivate
them to speak up or not to speak in the classroom. The discussions were led by the researchers and recorded.
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4. Findings And Discussion
Focus Group Discussion (FGD) sessions were conducted for one to two hours for each group of active and
passive students. Aspects discussed in FGD are related to personality and traits of instructors, students and peers,
culture and environment. These variables were selected with reference to some past studies which showed that all of
these aspects were related to the participation of students in classroom.
4.1 Personality factor
In group one (Year 2 undergraduates), the students highlighted responsibility as part of personality that motivates
them to speak. They feel that it is the responsibility of the students to ask if they do not understand, want to know or
need further clarifications from the instructor. Students in group two (Year 3 undergraduates), mentioned the
personalities such as like to read, like to ask to friends or instructors, prepared before entering the class and have a
high curiosity attitude that drive them to speak up in classroom. While students in group three (postgraduates), cited
personality traits include make early preparations, like to talk and asking questions, like to read, and loves to get
attention in class. Generally, students who have the characteristics of responsibility, like to read, high curiosity,
always be prepared, and like to ask questions will form an active personality. These traits will facilitate the
formation of self efficacy, as stated by Rahil et.al (2006), with a high degree of self efficacy and thus will increase
confidence level and motivate them to speak up in classroom. Personality traits of passive students were found to be
opposite to the active students and it distinguishes the degree of participation in classroom. The personality
characteristics of passive students for the first group is that, they afraid to ask and the fear getting scolded by
instructor. They are also not confident with their selves and just sit still and listened.
For the second group, the personality of passive students is that, they are difficult to focus in class, no interest in
learning, no interest in the topic being studied, was ashamed to ask, lack of knowledge, and not confident with
themselves. Students prefer to ask in person with a lecturer or do some reference from the Internet if they do not
understand or want to seek more information. Furthermore, for the third group, the personalities of passive students
are more into listening, do not like reading books and talking only when necessary.
Generally, for these three passive groups of students, they had little knowledge of the topic being taught because
they do not like to read or no interest in the topic. These traits caused them to feel no confident with their selves and
ashamed to ask. This shows that the characteristics of low self-efficacy will cause them to be passive in the
classroom. These findings are consistent with Fassinger (1995) and Gomez et.al (1995), that low levels of self-
confidence, do not make preparation before class, fear of failing to show their intelligence while in the classroom
and the feelings of confusion, will cause students to become passive, thus becoming less engaged in classroom
discussions. This is also supported by Siti Maziha et.al (2010), who found that students become passive in classroom
discussion due to the self-limitations, such as cannot focus during lecture or learning time and fear of offense.
Passive students also come from different cultural backgrounds. For group one, students who are less vulnerable
to knowledge, less reading and not ready before entering the class will lead them to become passive. They do not
know what to ask and would rather sit and writing notes. Possibly, this attitude has been embedded since childhood
through family socialization. One of the passive students said that he did not like to ask since childhood. If there are
things that are not understood, he would rather ask a friend to ask the question on his behalf. There are also among
those who are not skilled with the language used in the classroom. To not laugh at by others, they prefer to keep
quiet and just listen.
4.2 Environmental factor
The elements that associated with this factor such as size of a classroom, seating positions in class, condition of
classroom, lecture time and the use of technology were asked to the students during FGD. The group of active
520 Mohd. Yusof Abdullah et al. / Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences 51 ( 2012 ) 516 – 522
students provides a different view on the influence of size of classroom on participation in classroom. Some are
concerned about size and choose a small size as a conducive environment for learning. With the small size of
classroom, students feel not ashamed to ask and instructors are able to focus more on the students. However, there
are students who are not so concerned with the size because big or small, they will ask questions to get more
The finding indicates that seating positions in the classroom does not affect student participation. Whether sitting
in front or at the back, these active students still participate actively. Lecture time, however, is important and can
influence participation. Students who attend classes in the evenings usually feel tired and this may reduce their
interest to actively involved in the classroom.
Overall, among the active students, environmental factors such as size of classroom and seating positions in the
class, are not so clearly affect their participation. For those who are extrovert, environmental elements do not
significantly affect their willingness to ask questions and giving opinions. For passive students, the views expressed
by this group are different from active students. Passive students in group 1 said they are more comfortable with
smaller class. This could be related to their introvert personality. They do not like to be in big audiences and difficult
to assimilate themselves with bigger crowd compared to active students.
Similarly, the second group also prefers small class size and seating position in the front row. In their view, these
two elements can influence active participation in classroom. For group 3, the views given by the students in this
matter are mixed. They are more comfortable sitting in the front and some do not mind sitting at the back.
Respondents who choose to sit at the back claimed that this seating position will facilitate them to ask a friend if
they do not understand the topic being studied. Overall, the size of a classroom and seating positions in classroom
are important to encourage passive students to be active in class. This accorded with their personality traits which
are quiet, shy, fearful and less confident.
4.3 The influence of instructor in classroom
The study found that both passive and active students agreed that instructors play a major factor in any
classrooms. Positive traits of instructors and the method or style of teaching employed are important motivating
factors to stimulate verbal engagements among students in the classroom. An instructor’s traits that favored by
students are friendly, know each student well, do not criticize the students, always show a good mood, and
approachable. With these traits, students do not feel afraid and ashamed to speak up in class. Students also do not
feel left out when everyone is given equal opportunity to participate. Preferred teaching methods to encourage
students to participate actively in classroom are provide notes before the class start, so that they can prepare before
coming to the class, conducting activities in the classroom, and always inviting students to speak in a Q & A
In conclusion, the instructors’ traits chosen by both passive and active students are friendly, openness,
professional, and able to know the students well. A skilled instructors will employed the best method or style that
will stimulate students to be responsive, not bored and idleness in the classroom.
4.4 The influence of classmates or peers
Classmates may also influence the learning process. Fassinger (1995), refers peers as a class trait and categorized
them into two, firstly interaction norms (pressure from peers not to speak, the pressure to keep comments brief, peer
discouragement of controversial opinions, peers’ attention, and peers’ lack of respect), and secondly, emotional
climate (friendships, students’ supports of each other, and students’ cooperation). FGD results for the first active
group found that classmates influenced students to be active in classroom. Passive students usually will ask active
students to ask questions on their behalf. Active students preferred to sit with their counterparts, so that they can be
as active in in the class.
Mohd. Yusof Abdullah et al. / Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences 51 ( 2012 ) 516 – 522
Similar to group 1, group 2 and 3 of active students also said that classmate did influence them to be active in
class. Active students will be asked to be an intermediary for other students to ask questions. More active students in
class is better because they will be competing to seek knowledge through discussion and participation in classroom.
FGD results of the first group of passive students, found that students' perceptions of peer influence on their learning
is mostly negative. They do not perceived an active classmates inspire them to learn, but rather just wanted to show
off. They considered the domination of active students in talking causing them to feel marginalized and inferior,
thus they choose to be passive in the classroom.
For group 3, the views on the influence of peers was mixed. Some agreed that classmates do encourage them to ask
questions. For students who do not agree, the reason is that they have not yet know their classmates well. For those
who agreed, they considered active classmates as spoke persons to ask questions particularly from the matured
students, who are more knowledgeable and experienced. Thus, the passive students will depend on active students to
get more information.
In conclusion, the students agreed on the importance of peers in the learning process. However, students prefer to
be in a group similar to them in term of assertiveness in classroom. Overall, both groups of passive and active
students acknowledged the importance of students to speak up in the class. Thus, it is important for the instructor
to create a conducive learning environment which will stimulate the students to actively participate in the
classroom. Behaviours of students in classroom can be categorized as active and passive. While there are students
who actively participate in classroom and yet there are many more who hesitate to participate. Being inactive or
passive in class is one way to show that the students are not able to express themselves. Students who always
participate in class are the ones that are easily remembered by their lecturers. Therefore, it is important for the
instructors to encourage all students to speak up because speaking is one important way for students to learn more
in the learning process.
In an effort to encourage all students to speak up, the instructors can take several steps such as;
1. Invite the students to speak up
2. Affirming or valued their contributions matter
3. Give marks/grade for every active participation
4. Be skillful in varieties of teaching techniques
5. Reinforce that it is ok to speak up regardless of what is said to be true or not
6. Be approachable and friendly
All these steps are ways towards creating a conducive classroom environment. Its aims are to transform the
classroom into a full integration type of participation whereby majority of the students engaged actively in the
Identifying the factors for purpose of knowing the reasons that motivate the students to speak up in classroom is
beneficial to the instructors in managing their classrooms. The study has revealed useful insights as to what motivate
students to speak up in classroom. With this understanding, the instructors can plan strategies and employ proper
techniques to create a responsive classroom. It is believed that classrooms are richest when all voices are heard. In a
situation where students are less active or passive in the classroom, it is pertinent for the instructors to encourage
active involvement. Thus, it is paramount for the instructor to create a conducive learning environment which will
stimulate the students to be actively involved in the classroom.
522 Mohd. Yusof Abdullah et al. / Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences 51 ( 2012 ) 516 – 522
We would like to thank the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia for providing the research grant (PTS-2011-077).
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