Stare them down until they talk. While some may rely on this method to break the silence of a classroom, there are many other ways to get your students to talk. In this post, I offer advice based on my experience as a discussion facilitator in general humanities survey courses.
Chat with students as they arrive. While many of us need to prep a bit on our laptops or the chalkboard before class begins, use the start of class to get students in a talking mood. Focus especially on those who arrive early and those that have trouble contributing. Sometimes a quick non course-related conversation can gain momentum easily, letting students build some energy for participation before class even begins. It is also important that students build rapport with one another, so help build some friendships.
Small groupwork. Some students feel uncomfortable speaking in larger groups, so it is often helpful to spend the first ten or fifteen minutes of class ‘priming’ their discussion with small groupwork. This way, students that are unsure about their input and ideas can test the waters without the intimidation of a full class discussion. One useful exercise is to have students bring important terms from lecture or readings and share them in small groups. The groups can hash out a few important terms and then one member can share with the entire course.
Explain why talking is important. My experiences come from recitations that meet at the end of the week after large lectures. I explain to my students that discussion is an opportunity to actually engage with the course and break from the lecture format. Students also must be convinced that they have ideas worth sharing, and that although putting yourself out there can be intimidating, it helps you learn and grow. Their careers will demand input and participation from them, so they might as well embrace the opportunity.
Shut up. Don’t be harsh on wrong answers. It is hard for passionate instructors to remain silent on a topic that excites them. At times, resist the urge to summarize discussions or push the students reach a point of synthesis. We want to move through the important ideas we targeted in the little time we have, but sometimes it can be a good investment to spend five more minutes you wanted on a certain topic that you might consider wasteful. These tangents can often be exciting and can invest students in future conversations and the discussion format overall. If a student volunteers an incorrect opinion or definition, exercise some tact in pointing it out to them. Being told your wrong in front of a group of your peers can have a strong silencing effect.
Finally, be positive and enthusiastic. Being super bubbly might not be part of your personality, but push yourself a bit to make discussion lively. In many ways, we are models for the behavior we want our students to emulate, and teaching can be a lot like performing at times. While harping on the shared experience of stress and overwork with your students can be tempting, focus on building rapport around positive experiences and topic. If you are asking students to step outside their comfort zones, meet them halfway and step outside yours.
How do you get your students to talk? Share your philosophy, examples, and activities for the benefit of others!
[image by Flickr User Ðeni [away for a while] and used under Creative Commons License]
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