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Silence is Golden . . .

. . . unless you are trying to run a classroom discussion, in which case silence can be counterproductive, discouraging, frustrating–in short, deadly. I learned about how to deal with the silent classroom, as I tend to learn most things, the hard way.

My college has a four-week intercession in January. There are a lot of great opportunities for faculty and students during this term: study-travel, interdisciplinary team-teaching, special-topics courses, field trips . . . it’s almost an embarrassment of riches. The downside to all of these prospects is that classes are very intense and time-consuming. My first Jan-Term, I offered a 4-credit course that met 12 hours a week (this is typical). I was really excited about the class: enrollment was high; I had some great guest speakers lined up as well as a field trip to a nearby archive; and most of all, I was teaching the class on a subject near and dear to my heart. What could go wrong?

The first day of class started off like any other. I introduced myself; I called role and had them each tell me something about themselves; I passed out the syllabus and went over the course objectives and expectations. I talked about the different kinds of assignments that they would be required to complete, and lastly, I emphasized the importance of classroom participation. Not only was participation worth a whopping 20% of their grade, but it is also an essential part of the seminar environment. Finally, I explained that the first day would be the exception rather than the rule. They hadn’t done any reading yet, and there was a fair amount of background information that I needed to provide, so I’d be talking more than usual. On the whole, it was a first class no more or less eventful than any other.

The next day, I came to class prepared with my notes, my book, and a hefty list of questions designed to foster a discussion of our first text. After taking attendance, I began with the first question, which was a softball. A very general, open-ended question designed just to get them comfortable talking in the group. Typically, these questions don’t elicit profundity, but they generally get a couple people to offer up an observation or opinion. My goal here is for them to see that talking in the classroom doesn’t result in Zeus-like bolts of lightning striking them down from above. So, the first question is pitched. And nothing, save for the sound crickets chirping. I waited and waited, and still nothing. I waited some more, and then I decided to reframe the question only to receive blank faces and a few moments later, hear the sound of the traffic light changing in a nearby intersection. I tried again, and still nothing. That class was the longest three hours of my life.

On the face of it, I had done everything right. I had the students sitting in a circle/horseshoe. I had done an icebreaker on the first day. I had started off with an easy, open question. I waited and gave them time and space to answer. But none of these things seemed to make any difference. The students just wouldn’t speak. I’d never experienced anything like it, and I had run plenty of discussion-based courses before. In fact, running an effective discussion is one of my strengths in the classroom. But none of that mattered with this group, who came to be known as “The Seminar of Silence” (SoS!) in my mind. The class finally opened up about two-thirds of the way through the term and surprisingly (at least to me), we ended up on a very positive note. What follows are some strategies that I used to deal with what turned out to be a multi-pronged problem.

  1. Know thyself. Part of the problem with the SoS was timing. It was slotted from 8:30-11:30 AM, Monday through Thursday. I am not a morning person, but I was seduced by three-day weekends and the visions of free afternoons to pursue my own project. As it turns out, I got nothing done on my own project because I spent all my free time prepping for class or too tired to think straight. A simple adjustment of moving the class to the afternoon has made a huge difference, and I now teach the class Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday so that we can all catch our breath on Wednesday rather than doing a death march through the week. I realize that we can’t always change our schedules at will, but if at all possible, play to your strengths. I knew I would struggle with an 8:30AM class, but I counted on the class to get me through it, and that didn’t work. At all.
  2. Mix it up. Arrange for different kinds of activities in the class. Group work became my best friend. I would put the students in groups of two or four and ask them to work together to solve certain problems or analyze different passages. After they had completed their tasks, sometimes they would have to write their answers on the board; other times we would go around the class.  But in every instance, the work that students did in their groups became the basis for discussion afterwards. The trick here was to switch up the group tasks so that it didn’t become monotonous for any of us. In addition to the group work, I had guest speakers come in to talk about different aspects of our topic, and I also screened a couple of films. Lastly, I drew upon the students’ response papers in class as starting points for our discussion. Not only did this emphasize that I was actually reading their assignments, but it also seemed made them feel more invested in the class.
  3. Get help. I incorporated an exercise that I discovered on the University of Virginia Teaching Resource Center called the Zen Ten. The basic idea in the exercise is for the instructor to remain silent and let the students run discussion. I point them to a passage in the text or give them an opening question, and I tell them that I will not speak for the next fifteen minutes. Instead I will observe their discussion and take a few notes. I have found the exercise to be challenging for me (it can be very hard to not jump in) and very beneficial for students. It breaks them out of the passive learning pattern because they know that no matter what, there is nothing from the professor to absorb or write down. I’ve incorporated the exercise into several different classes, and in each case, just about everyone has spoken at least once, even students who haven’t said a word in class up to that point. When the time has passed, I make sure to comment on the discussion as a whole first before engaging specific comments. In the case of SoS, the exercise turned the silence around. Rather than seeing it as oppressive, I started to see it as an opportunity.
  4. Reality-check. I gave out mid-term “report cards” which not only included the grades for assignments up to that point, but it also included the participation grade that the students would receive if grades were due then rather than later in the term. As you might expect, these grades were very low for the majority of students in the class. Simply reminding students in class that participation is part of their grade was too abstract. Actually seeing the grades that they would earn in black and white made the importance of contributing concrete.
  5. Perspective adjustment. It’s very easy to think that silence during classroom discussion is a function of our own failures. At first, I couldn’t help but wonder, “What am I doing wrong?” when in fact the silence had nothing to do with me. The guest speakers were especially helpful in this regard. Even when my own confidence was shaken, I knew that my colleagues are great in the classroom. The SoS was no exception; our guests were all terrific and engaging, and the class was just as quiet for them as it was for me.

The aftermath: While the SoS was one of the most challenging classroom experiences that I have had to date, it also taught me a great deal and turned out to be a very positive experience for all of us. I’m currently in the final stretch of the same class two years later, and it the difference couldn’t be more extreme. This version of the course has run much more smoothly in large part because I learned so much from the SoS. I hope that you never experience a situation this extreme in your own classroom, but maybe some of these tips will be useful.

If you have other suggestions for managing the Quiet Classroom, please feel free to share them in the comments section.

[Photo by Flickr user Samael Trip. Licensed under Creative Commons.]

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