Ratio: Why is Student Participation Significant? By Michael Fletcher

“And here’s how you should think about memory: it’s the residue of thought, meaning that the more you think about something, the more likely it is that you will remember it later (Willingham, 2008).”

Student participation is often falsely considered a measure of an effective lesson. It is commonly conceived that if students are actively involved in an activity (discussing, speaking, or sticking), the task has been successful. However, engagement alone is not sufficient. We must remember that the ultimate purpose of the classroom is to facilitate learning, and therefore the measure of an effective lesson is the quality of learning that takes place in it. There can be no question that student participation in learning is crucial. It is obvious that very little will be learnt by a student who refuses to participate in the lesson, or who is not sufficiently engaged by the topic. However, engagement alone does not ensure learning. Teachers often (understandably) believe that tasks must be exciting, enjoyable, and fun. We therefore spend extensive periods of time designing convoluted ways of involving students in the learning process, to such an extent that discussion and interaction supersedes our learning goals as the primary purpose of the lesson. It goes without saying that there is nothing wrong with a fun lesson, and to the extent that we can ensure students enjoy the learning process, we should. There is obviously nothing wrong with entertaining tasks. But this must be qualified by the fact that the classroom exists to facilitate learning. A lesson in which students participated, discussed, and had fun but did not access the target knowledge may provide them with a pleasant experience, and an argument can be made in favour of doing this from time to time. However, if participation becomes our primary objective at the cost of learning, our students will struggle to access the powerful knowledge they require to progress in life.

When our primary focus is upon student engagement and participation, we risk designing tasks which merely keep our students busy, absent of intellectual rigour. When we believe that any type of interaction is a good thing, we may end up creating tasks that produce empty, uninformed, or inaccurate engagement. Students may end up speaking about something of which they have no knowledge, or, without appropriate modelling and support, may cement inaccurate language use. Although they may be frequently answering questions, the questions posed may be low in intellectual value, and the answers will provide little as regards growth for students. Whilst it could be argued that confidence can be built by means of interaction regardless of its accuracy or usefulness, I still believe the issue of ‘busy work’ must be addressed.

In relation to this conundrum, Lemov (2014) introduces the notion of ‘ratio’. Lemov encourages teachers to consider the balance between ‘participation’ ratio and ‘think’ ratio. ‘Participation’ ratio is defined as the measure of who participates and how often. If participation ratio is maximised, students are involved in speaking, answering questions, sharing ideas, and participating on cue. ‘Think’ ratio refers to the level of thinking required to engage in the lesson. We might term this academic rigour. If this is maximised, students engage with content that necessitates careful thought, aimed slightly beyond their current ability level. Lemov believes that excellent teachers strive to balance the ratio between participation and thinking. I believe that ‘participation’ ratio has become an accepted part of what is perceived to be good practice. I believe ‘think’ ratio has been somewhat overlooked.

‘Think’ ratio is in fact a crucial consideration for a successful lesson. If we consider learning to be a change in long-term memory, it becomes clear that teachers must reflect upon what students will be thinking about at different phases of the lesson. As cited above, Willingham (2008) indicates that memory is the residue of thought. In order to remember something, we must think carefully about it. To explain the importance of this, let us use the expression ‘active ingredient’, and an analogy presented by Sam Sims (2021).

There are toothpastes that claim to protect us from tooth decay. These toothpastes have multiple ingredients. However, not all of those ingredients contribute directly to the prevention of tooth decay. Some ingredients are included to create a pleasant taste. Some exist to provide structural substance to the toothpaste. The active ingredients are those which directly contribute to the positive outcome, and the additional ingredients are those which make the positive outcome possible. Both types of ingredients are important, but the ‘active’ ingredients are the most significant.

Consider this analogy in terms of ‘participation’ and ‘think’ ratio. If we move beyond affective factors (confidence etc), it could be argued that the greatest benefit of student participation and engagement is that it is a catalyst for thought. The ‘active ingredient’ in student engagement is thinking, which in turn facilitates a change in long-term memory, which is our chosen definition of learning.

As thought (and therefore learning) is not possible without participation, it is therefore crucial that we design lessons that engage students and create classroom environments in which participation is expected. However, consciousness of Lemov’s ratio is also vital. Participation should not be considered an end in itself. The fact that our students are engaged is not sufficient to consider a lesson successful. What are they engaged with? What are they thinking about as they participate? How effective has their engagement been in terms of learning? When we move closer towards balancing ‘participation’ ratio with ‘think’ ratio, we begin to create highly effective lessons and enhance learning outcomes for students.

Key Questions

  1. How do the tasks I set balance ‘participation’ ratio and ‘think’ ratio?
  2. What will my students be thinking about during the tasks I set?
  3. How do I measure how effectively my tasks enable students to access target knowledge?

Willingham, D. (2008). What Will Improve a Student’s Memory? American Educator (Winter 2008 – 2009). Available here: https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/willingham_0.pdf

Lemov, D. (2014). Teach like a champion 2.0. John Wiley & Sons.

Lovell, O. and Sims, S. (2021). Education Research Reading Room Podcast: Sam Sims on What Makes Effective Professional Development. Available here: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/errr-058-sam-sims-on-what-makes-effective-professional/id1200068608?i=1000537955170