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Student Silence

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Chris Bertram at CT is asking for suggestions regarding a constant and difficult problem for those of us who teach undergraduates for a living. There’s obviously no one silver bullet answer, but I’ve used a technique for several years that’s generally been pretty successful.

At the beginning of a discussion, ask a fairly broad, big, open-ended question. The best of these questions have the following characteristics: 1) They provide prompts and opportunities for the best students to answer in a sophisticated manner, but aren’t so intimidating that students with less confidence of analytic thinking skills can’t potentially answer them. 2) The potential range of answers to the question might direct class discussion toward a range of issues you were hoping to raise in discussion that day, and 3) The question should be difficult to answer, but not totally impossible to come up with something, for those who have not completed the reading.*

Then, rather than let the question just sit there, tell the students to write an answer, and give them five minutes. Let them use their books, and make sure not to frame it as a quiz, but collecte them at least occasionally and grade them on a credit/no credit basis (but dole out praise for really smart answers sparingly). Then, once the five minutes is up, begin the discussion. No one can credibly claim they’ve got nothing to say, since they’ve got a half-page in front of them that must say something.

The key here is that this forces everyone to actually activate their brains a little bit, rather than just passively sit through class and let others carry the discussion. I never cold-call on students ordinarily, but with these questions, I will, by asking them what they wrote about. I really don’t like the pressure cold-calling puts on shyer students, but I want everyone to participate at least some of the time, and this seems like a nice compromise.

The success I’ve had with this technique seems dependent on making it a regular feature of the course from the beginning–not necessarily every day, but most of the discussion days in the course. When I’ve tried to introduce it as a remedial feature in a too-quiet course, it’s met with significant resistance and is deeply disliked. When it’s a structural feature, it’s not exactly wildly popular, but a lot of students seem to write in my course evaluations that while they disliked the daily writing exercises, it was actually helpful on reflection.

*This is the hardest feature, and I often rely on questions that require reading, or sometimes questions that clearly don’t. When I can, though, I like to use questions that reward students who read without completely excluding those who didn’t that day.

There are a lot of other interesting suggestions in comments. This one from Aaron_m

Be funny and energetic, or at least try. I usually find that students are kind of like an audience at a wedding listening to a toast. They really want you to succeed at being entertaining, so you just need to avoid making a complete ass of yourself in the process. Given the usual lack of alcohol during seminars this should be easier than at a wedding.

Seems quite correct, until the last sentence, which clearly says the opposite of what it means to say.

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