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We’ve all had our share of teacher headaches from trying to tame a rowdy class, but nothing makes a class go by slower than unwanted silence. You ask a well-thought-out question you think is sure to spark some interesting discussion. And what do you get? Crickets… I’ve been there, trust me. Those moments of class silence seem to go on forever, even when it’s only been a couple of seconds. Over the years, I’ve learned a few tips, and I’m excited to share 6 ways to improve class discussion when students won’t talk.
Why do you think your students are keeping quiet? In my experience, there seem to be two main reasons for it.
The latter is the more challenging problem to solve: in these cases, it seems the more you want them to respond, the more silent they become. For these situations especially, you need to do some detective work. Maybe there is one student in particular who is influencing the rest of the students’ behavior. Talk to this student one-on-one.
It doesn’t have to be negative. Tell the student that you can tell that they have a real impact on the class dynamic. Ask them to be the leader you both know they can be.
You can’t solve a problem unless you know what the problem is. To isolate the issue, you might even want to have each student complete a class survey with questions that will give you some insight into the reasons for their silence.
Maybe your students are only silent at the wrong times…I know I’ve had groups like this: they talk when you want them to work silently, and they sit silently when you want them to engage in-class discussion.
It’s puzzling—and headache-inducing!
Silent Discussions have saved me (and my head) from this struggle. This serves as a great primer for class discussion.
How it works:
You can choose to create your own discussion questions according to your class texts, or you can draw on the discussion prompts that I discuss below! You can grab the free silent discussions activity here. It’s one of my own go-to ways to improve class discussion when no one wants to talk. If you’re interested, you can read about it in more detail here.
Class discussions don’t always have to be directly related to the course material. In fact, it can be a good strategy to intentionally have discussions outside of what you’re teaching. I’ve always liked to use high-interest discussion prompts as a way to heat up the conversation in the classroom. Then, I steal some of this energy when I bring the discussion back around to the content for the class. For this, I usually organize the students into pairs—or rotating small groups. Below are a few of my favorite types of prompts.
I’ve used a couple of different discussion card collections with my students. My favorite is the “What would you do” prompts. These are ethical dilemma questions like…
These questions are great because they elicit immediate emotional reactions to hypothetical situations that never even actually happened. These quickly become questions of character sure to provoke discussion!
I find “What if” prompts to be one of the most effective ways to improve class discussion when no one wants to talk. They ask questions like…
For each question, I get my students to elaborate on their answers by considering things like how their lives would change and who do they think would be positively or negatively affected.
Both of these high-interest prompt activities can be used in a number of ways with your classes. For example, you might assign each student their individual question and have them reflect on the pros and cons of their own answers. Or, you might simply read the questions aloud with the class and discuss their gut responses on the spot. It’s up to you!
Instead of having students respond to a question discussion card, you can have them respond to a video clip you watch as a class. I compile a list of my favorite video clips that are short (usually less than 5 minutes). I show them to the class and then provide a related prompt to get students talking. Here are some of my favorite clips to share.
It’s important to have some empathy for your students’ silence because sometimes, it’s born out of genuine insecurity. They don’t want to say something wrong and suffer the social consequences. This is where Think – Pair – Share becomes a particularly useful strategy. With this process, student responses go through a few steps. By the time they are sharing it with the class, their answers are not only more refined from their initial thoughts, but they’re also socially validated by a partner or a small group. This helps students slowly build up their confidence.
It seems it would be wrong to talk about class discussion strategies and not mention the talking stick. I don’t think I need to explain what a talking stick is to you…but this time-tested option might be just what you need in your classroom. It doesn’t have to be a stick, either. You can throw around a tennis ball to each student until everyone has had the chance to take the floor and answer a question on the spot, but the only person speaking is the one holding the object. This strategy works so well because it makes everyone aware that speaking is inevitable and there is a tangible way to track it.
One of my favorite ways to improve class discussion is to push all the desks to one side of the room and set up the chairs in a circle at the center of the room. Watch how the dynamic in your class changes…Whether we realize it or not, the power dynamic in the classroom is created in part by the actual class layout. By switching it up and sitting in a circle with your students, you are taking a break from being at the head of the class discussion. This promotes an important sense of equality in your classroom and pushes the idea that every voice matters. When you sit alongside them this way, your class discussion will arise naturally.
One last piece of advice before I sign off. Early on in my teaching career, I received some helpful advice: as a teacher, you need to be willing to sit in silence. My tendency, especially in those early days of teaching, was to break up any of these moments of silence with answers to my own questions. Or, I’d rephrase what I was asking. Sometimes, I’d call on a student to answer on the spot. I didn’t realize that often the answer was simply to allow the silence to linger. If it was uncomfortable for me, it was similarly uncomfortable for the students. These moments of discomfort can be good: they push your more sympathetic students to answer and thus setting an example for the rest to follow.
I hope this gave you some ways to improve class discussion and best of luck implementing some of these strategies with your class!
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