David Gooblar

Columnist at Chronicle Vitae

Getting Them to Talk

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As anyone who has taught for more than a week will tell you, the most clever and carefully planned classroom strategy can fall flat if your students balk. Active-learning strategies necessarily depend on student participation and, thus, are particularly vulnerable to student resistance.

Most of what we mean by "participation" involves students being willing to contribute constructively to class discussions. And we've all had classes in which, for whatever reason, students just don't want to talk. So how do you minimize that occurrence and lay the groundwork for active learning?

The first step is to prioritize discussion. It's important that you let students know that discussion is integral to the course, to their learning, and to their grades. Be explicit, early on in the term, about why it's important for everyone to take part in discussions. Devote a section of your syllabus to laying out that reasoning as well. Make participation at least 10 percent of students' final grades, and hand out interim participation grades regularly to remind students of their responsibility.

You can also enshrine discussion in the regular rhythm of a class period. Begin each class with a discussion question. Do that every time—perhaps allowing a few minutes for students to write down their thoughts first—and they will get in the habit of coming to class ready to talk. Or if you'd rather start class with a short lecture, try writing an open-ended discussion question on the board first, so students can start thinking about the discussion that your lecture will lead up to.

Even if you have to lecture for most of the class period, break it up with frequent opportunities for discussion. You need to convey that participation is nonnegotiable. Opening up the floor to discussion early and often works a lot better than talking at them for an hour and then asking, "Any questions?."

Do your best to create an open, supportive atmosphere in which students feel comfortable speaking up, and voicing potentially wrong answers. Model the curiosity you'd like students to exhibit in class by asking rhetorical questions, admitting when you're unsure about something, and thinking out loud. Let students know, through your actions, that it's OK to fumble for an answer—in fact, it's encouraged.

Don't be afraid of silence. After asking a question of the class, be prepared to wait a full 10 or even 15 seconds without a response. If, when no one immediately responds, you rush to answer your own question, students will get the message that they don't really need to speak up. Instead, let your question hang in the air. If need be, rephrase it. But don't give up on the discussion just because nobody answers right away. Calling on students also has its place, and is something that gets easier the more you do it. If students know that there's a real possibility they'll get called on, they'll make more of an effort to be ready to respond.

An often overlooked but important aspect of good discussions is how you respond when students do speak up.

If you want them to take class discussions seriously, you have to take their contributions seriously. You have to provide specific, thoughtful, encouraging responses to their comments. You have to ask follow-up questions. You have to be an amazing listener, working to see things from their point of view. Sometimes you have to be a “discussion EMT,” working to resuscitate a dying conversation before it peters out into silence.

When students give an incomplete or misguided answer, challenge it but do so in a way that encourages them to rethink the matter. It should go without saying that you don't want to embarrass students, or discourage them from voicing a potentially wrong answer. It's not easy, but it's up to you to help students see how even a wrong answer can help move the discussion forward.

The principle that underlies all of this: We have to make the case to students that their regular participation will help them learn more, get better grades, and enjoy themselves. If we can convince them, through the strategies I've mentioned here or others, that they'll get more out of our courses if they participate fully, then we'll get the class discussions we're hoping for. None of these strategies are foolproof, but taken together they go a long way toward creating a classroom in which students regularly take the reins.

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