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The Silent Ones We Wish Would Speak

One of the most frustrating aspects of trying to get students involved with class discussions are those generally able students who (on exams or papers) express all sorts of excellent ideas but remain mute when those same topics are discussed in class.

Stephen D. Brookfield and Stephen Preskill, in a new book on discussion, list nine reasons why students are silent. These reasons help explain student unresponsiveness and help develop alternatives that may enable us to break through this counterproductive silence.

  • Introversion: Some students are just plain shy. In this case, there are no simple solutions - best to accept that this is a characteristic of some people and move on to the reasons you might be more successful in "fixing."
  • Fear of looking stupid: Nobody likes to look or feel stupid and when the content is new and you aren't sure you really understand it, it's easy to imagine saying something stupid - and having some teacher point it out.
  • Feeling unprepared: You can carefully read and underline text (maybe even make notes), but feel unprepared to speak.
  • Feeling unwelcome: The academic culture (with specialized languages and rules of thought) represents a new intellectual place.
  • Bad experiences: If a student has been mocked or berated for an unconventional, radical, or unpopular point of view, that experience may linger and influence ongoing decisions about when to speak or remain silent.
  • Maintaining one's cool: When students are still young adults and peer influence remains strong, there may be norms against speaking up.
  • Reliance on the teacher: If you do all the talking, why should students bother getting involved? It's a vicious cycle: We try to get them to talk, they won't and so with silence the only other option, we fill the quiet with our own talk. And the more we talk, the less time and motivation there is for them to participate.
  • Lack of reward: In some classes there is no credit for participation. In others it's such a trivial amount given on such subjective criteria that it doesn't motivate student involvement. Students do what counts.

You can easily transform what's listed here into a quick survey. Ask students why they don't participate in your class. If they do, they can still hypothesize about why other students might not.

Obviously, you'll want to study the reasons most highly ranked by nonparticipators. The survey results could be shared in class and maybe, just maybe, you could engage them in a discussion about what you and the rest of the class might do to encourage the participation of all the students, but especially those with the good ideas.

Brookfield, Stephen D. and Preskill, Stephen (1999). Discussion as A Way of Teaching. San Francisco, CA.: Jossey-Bass, pp.182-3.

"Happy work is best done by the man who takes his long-term plans somewhat lightly and works from moment to moment 'as to the Lord.' It is our daily bread that we are encouraged to ask for. The present is the only time in which any duty can be done and any grace received."
-C.S. Lewis; Learning in Wartime, The Weight of Glory