Collaborative Learning: Encouraging Shy Students to Participate in Group Activities

As a teacher, you’ll be aware that getting students to engage in group activities can be hugely beneficial. It encourages team work and mutual support; it can bring a competitive dimension to learning which can motivate students to strive harder for results and, perhaps most importantly of all, it exposes them to other people’s thought processes and problem solving abilities which helps them to develop their own reasoning skills. This sort of collaborative learning teaches students to think more deeply and laterally simply because the answer isn’t supplied by the teacher or a textbook - they have to work it out for themselves.

Children participating in group work
Image credit: YZ Photography

But not all students find it easy to take an active role within a group. Shy students can tend to feel overwhelmed when the focus is put on them in class and it takes time, patience and skill to draw them out and help them to become a confident contributor in group activities. What can you do to encourage these students to participate?

Set ground rules for collaborative learning

First of all it’s important to work with your students to establish a framework of rules when taking part in group activities, which might include basics such as:

  • Take it in turns to speak
  • Listen to each other sympathetically
  • Don’t put anyone down
  • The success of the group is what’s important, not your individual friendships within it
  • Stay focused on the task
  • Each group member has a role and everyone is accountable for the success of the task

Once you’ve agreed your ‘commandments’, display them clearly in the classroom and make sure they’re followed.

students engaging in collaborative learning

Start small

Start by putting students to work in pairs as the shy ones will feel much more comfortable in this situation. Avoid pairing them up with their most outgoing or dominant fellow students as they may allow themselves to be pushed into the background by these individuals. Be sure to praise their efforts and achievements to reinforce the idea that they can achieve much more by working with a partner than they can alone.

Gradually start enlarging group activities by having each pair’s work feed into larger teams formed by combining pairs. Shy students feel more comfortable when they have a partner to share the responsibility of their input to the larger group so this dynamic helps them feel safer contributing to the discussion. They can also benefit from working with the same teams regularly as this gives them a sense of familiarity and trust where they are more comfortable sharing their ideas. Build up group size in this way and start exposing shy students to the more outgoing ones as they gain in confidence.

Understand how they tick

Shy students have a high level of intrapersonal skills but a low level of interpersonal skills. Intrapersonal skills are defined as the ability to hear and analyse your own thoughts, and are therefore vital to the learning process. Though you can’t actually teach intrapersonal skills, you can mould and develop them by demonstrating how important they are in making good personal choices. Good intrapersonal skills are the foundation of good interpersonal skills, so building the students’ self-belief in this way will help them to participate in a group environment.

You can encourage your students to develop their intrapersonal skills in your collaborative classroom in a number of ways, such as:


Set learning objectives in advance of the lesson
. For example, you could set a preliminary task like asking students to fill in a KWL grid at home.

Give students space and time to think before starting the task. Allow sufficient time for students to read and digest material before forming into groups to discuss it. You might consider asking them to fill in a questionnaire about it, or highlight parts of the text as a starting point.

Developing interpersonal skills

Students need to work in a collaborative or social setting in order to develop good communication skills. Interpersonal skills - the ability to interact successfully with others - are at the core of effective group work and speaking, as the main medium of communication in a group, is the most critical of these skills. Students, particularly shy ones, need to have a positive and safe environment for speaking, so you need to ensure that all students understand and apply the principles of inclusion and respect for others’ views. If a shy student feels they can express an opinion without having it shot down, they will feel less daunted when taking part in group activities.

As a teacher you can help by:

  • Allowing shy students to build up their participation gradually. You could start by using polls and surveys to seek consensus within the group. Next, ask them to comment on or ask a question about another student’s contribution as they will find this less daunting to begin with than offering their own opinions.
  • Once the shy students are comfortable expressing their views, you can start to elicit more detailed contributions. Ask questions like ‘What do you actually mean by…?’ or ‘Can you tell me more about….?’ This will help them reason out their responses and get their meaning across clearly. Encouraged by your praise, they will gain both persuasive skills and confidence as a result.

Generally speaking, what all children seek is acceptance from their peers. Working as a group is an opportunity to achieve this, so it’s your job to make even the most reluctant participants see this by providing them with an environment in which they can speak without fear of judgement or embarrassment. Watching shy students blossom and gain confidence through collaborative learning is one of the great pleasures of being a teacher.