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]


5 Responses to Get Your Students Talking

  1. EKSwitaj says:

    Great post! I have a lot of experience with classes of hesitant talkers. Here are some other things that have worked for me:

    1) Throwing a ball around – When you ask a question, throw a ball to the student who will answer, and then they throw the ball to the next student who will speak, and so on. Students tend to feel less pressured this way than if you call on them by name. I did, however, once have a class that was so shy that they let the ball hit their heads rather than catching it (so you can see the importance of using a soft foam ball).

    2) Rewarding mistakes – This probably isn’t appropriate in all contexts but when you’re teaching a language, students may be hesitant to speak without first rehearsing or writing down what they want to say. To solve this problem, when I was teaching several sections of EFL, I would bring cookies for whichever section made the most errors each week (though I didn’t announce the winning section to the others).

    3) Enlist student allies – If you have one or two students are particularly talkative and keen, ask them to help you encourage other students to speak. Also, ask them if they have any ideas about what you can do to better engage their peers. This is especially important if you and your students have different cultural backgrounds.

  2. Matthew Dennis says:

    These are great ideas. I’m a first-time reader here, so I thought I would jump right in:
    1)It should go without saying, but try to avoid making students read your mind. If you ask them what stood out to them from the reading – listen to what they say and build on it – don’t just keep going until you get to the student who says the thing you wanted them to arrive at. Students notice this, and it makes them less confident – or less frequent – contributors to discussion.
    2) If you do want to discuss something in particular, be clear about what that is. Don’t make them guess. You might think of providing some questions in advance to guide them while they are reading so that they come to class prepared to discuss the themes you would like them to be able to discuss.
    3) Teachers and students have all experienced a moment in class when a particular line of questioning just goes nowhere. Often, there is a temptation to pretend that it ‘kind-of’ worked and move on, or more often, to move on awkwardly without acknowledging that it didn’t work. Students and teachers mentally blame one another for the disconnect, and depending on the group dynamic, the rest of the class period is lost. In situations like this, it might help to say: “Let’s spend a couple minutes writing down our thoughts about this particular question. Take another look at your notes and look for an example of… and then we’ll share some of our ideas.” You let your students know that it is important enough to you to spend some extra time on the question, and you give them a chance to gather their thoughts while you get a minute or two to gather your own!

  3. Keith Chan says:

    I have a theoretical technique for smaller discussion groups: go around the class and have each person (including yourself) make a factually incorrect statement. This will break the ‘wrong’ barrier for actual discussion. Statements can get silly, like “Our 12th president was a cat.”

  4. […] at least planting the seeds for it—will ensure that future activities, particularly those that require dialogue among students, unfold more easily. Of course, icebreaker activities potentially are cringe-worthy, but a […]

Leave a Reply to Keith Chan Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

.post-thumb {float: left;}