• September 3, 2015

What's the Problem With Quiet Students? Anyone? Anyone?

What's the Problem With Quiet Students? Anyone? Anyone? 1

Katherine Streeter for The Chronicle

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close What's the Problem With Quiet Students? Anyone? Anyone? 1

Katherine Streeter for The Chronicle

We professors love to talk about quiet students: the men who slouch in the back row, hidden beneath their baseball caps; the women who smile congenially but never, ever raise their hands; the classes that leave us frustratedly channeling the hapless economics teacher in Ferris Bueller's Day Off as we plead in vain for student participation ("Anyone? Anyone?").

When I was a new composition instructor, getting students to talk was as important and as worrisome to me as helping them to improve their writing. I soon learned that professors have a whole vocabulary for explaining students' silence: They're unprepared, resistant, hostile, less intelligent, "absent."

I know that sometimes students are simply shy or bored or unprepared. But I also know that racism, sexism, and classism often work to silence some voices. And let's face it: Sometimes students are quiet because they have a bad teacher.

Those scenarios conflicted with the kind of student-centered, critical-learning, dialogical classroom I hoped to create. By reading gender and race studies, as well as composition, education, and postmodern theories about the "problem" of silence, I gained a greater understanding of the kinds of classrooms we want to create, and what can go wrong. But it wasn't enough: I still wanted to know why students sometimes speak in class and why, sometimes, they don't.

My colleagues' stories and the theory I was reading helped me understand how instructors see the "problem" of quiet students and fueled my sense that "getting them talking" preoccupied many of my colleagues. Even with my new interdisciplinary understanding of silence, I realized there was a crucial question that we weren't asking: What can quiet students tell us about classroom discussions and silence?

Through a yearlong study of a first-year composition class in which students periodically wrote about their experiences of classroom silence, followed by a series of interviews with five students who self-identified as "quiet," I explored what students themselves believe about speaking and silence. I discovered that students understand classroom discussion and silence quite differently than their instructors generally do. Students have complicated interpretations of the classroom that we rarely confront when we focus on "getting them talking." When I asked my students about their classroom experiences, I didn't hear the kinds of stories I expected to—complaints of boredom, confessions about being unprepared, angry litanies of alienation. Instead, in the hundreds of pages of reflections and 15 interviews, students explored their active choices to speak or to be quiet—choices that involve careful analysis of the professor, their classmates, and themselves.

The overwhelming majority of the students in my study understand speaking in class to be a high-stakes testing situation in which they are expected to provide a right answer. The more pressure a professor creates through grading class participation, the more complicated it becomes for students to speak. By observing an instructor—how she interacts with the class, the kinds of questions she asks, and how she responds to their voices—they determine whether they are expected, in general, to reflect, speculate, and hypothesize aloud or to perform on an oral quiz.

The students in the study also consider their self-images, their knowledge, and their comfort levels with criticism and confrontation in the classroom setting when deciding whether to speak or be silent. They understand that their classmates' opinions of them will be affected, if not formed, by the opinions they offer in class. And that makes speaking out a complex negotiation. Students know that their contributions to a discussion—say, ones that challenge another student, or that are misconstrued—on highly charged issues like affirmative action might irrevocably brand them as racists. They understand that what you say can easily become who you are.

That can be particularly problematic in writing classes, where students often read and respond to one another's work. The size of the discussion group, a lack of familiarity with other students, and the often unspoken rules about participating, including how frequently to speak, and how to achieve a balance between supportive, meaningful, and critical feedback, are among the factors students consider when deciding whether to speak or be silent. Ironically, some of those same issues—voice, identity, authority, and audience—are slippery concepts that writing instructors often struggle to teach effectively. Quiet students understand them in a visceral way and know that they are always being evaluated by their peers and their instructor, even in a student-centered classroom.

In this research, I was most surprised by what had been missing in my conversations with colleagues and had rarely emerged in all the reading I had done about student silence. It came down to this: Student silence isn't necessarily a problem. Some students choose silence because it best fits their learning style, culture, or history. Much contemporary pedagogy lauds the calls for "student voice" as empowering. But students who are, for example, visual learners, or whose home cultures have taught them to value speaking and silence differently than the contemporary culture of American higher education does, often benefit from the inclusion of silence in the curriculum. Recognizing that silence can be an active, generative space, those students agree with a small group of theorists who argue that silence can invite meditation, contemplation, and engagement. In other words, silence—along with dialogue—fosters learning.

To accept such a premise takes a leap of faith. It requires us to accept that quiet students bring important perspectives to the conversations we've been having about them, that requiring and grading student speech may be counterproductive to a critical education, and that we need to broaden our teaching strategies to serve the range of students in our classrooms. Some students are quiet because they are listening to others' views to integrate them into their own perspectives. Speech and contemplation may not happen simultaneously; those who don't come to the classroom already skilled in academic discourse need time and space to "translate" their thinking.

So have I given up trying to engage all my students in classroom discussions? Have I abandoned a commitment to understanding and resisting the ways that "difference" can be used to silence students? Hardly. But I have stopped automatically assuming that the silences in my classroom necessarily indicate failure. I work harder to communicate with my students about my expectations and theirs, particularly since for many students, my student-centered, dialogical classroom is the exception, not the rule, and the kinds of discussions—and silences—I invite may challenge what they think a classroom should look like.

Throughout my research, I resisted the kinds of easy answers that permeate our discussions about quiet students, and worked to understand students' views about speaking and silence. That led me to new principles that drive my teaching now, ones that help me in my efforts to create more-effective learning conditions for all students.

First, it is important to distinguish between learning—the real goal of the classroom—and speaking, which is but one means of achieving that goal. While my ideal student may be highly vocal, I need to respect my students' needs, boundaries, cultures, and histories as learners, which may make silence a productive space. To assist quiet students, and to teach vocal students important new modes of learning, I now make time for occasional silence in my classes by assigning in-class writing and building deliberate pauses for reflection into our discussions. And to foster listening, I ask my students to frame their comments in light of classmates' contributions.

Given that so many students in the study perceive classroom discussion to be a form of verbal testing rather than of constructing knowledge, I've become more explicit about my expectations and objectives. When I expect students to know the right answer, I make that clear. When my goal is the creation of knowledge, I strive to make that distinction clear as well, and ask genuinely open-ended questions to promote conversation in which ideas are exchanged, considered, and reformulated.

Altering the dynamics of discussions also creates additional opportunities for students to participate. Small groups, student-led discussions, and online discussion boards are a few strategies to invite more students' voices.

As a professor, I can often do more to facilitate student talk by saying less. Taking myself out of the center of classroom conversations and being mindful of my own participation can help students reimagine knowledge and the classroom.

Just as I work to facilitate student talk as a means of learning, I now also work to foster generative silences. Listening, introspection, and speculation are critical forms of class participation that must be both acknowledged and taught in the dialogical classroom.

Mary M. Reda is an associate professor of English at the City University of New York's College of Staten Island and author of Between Speaking and Silence: A Study of Quiet Students (SUNY Press, 2009).


1. drnels - September 06, 2010 at 01:24 pm

I have long said that silence is not always a problem. Sometimes, it's because students are just plain thinking. I do expect a certain level of participation, and I call on people to offer thoughts at times. But I also let silence happen and do other things than lecture or have discussion. We need to do all kinds of things because of diverse learning styles. Plus, it's just plain fun to shake up our teaching with all kinds of in-class work.

2. cpri2405 - September 07, 2010 at 10:27 am

Great piece. I look forward to reading your study. One of the reasons to have students work in teams or in pairs is to get them talking to each other - a practice usually much more valuable for their learning than answering teacher questions in front of the entire class.

3. almelle - September 07, 2010 at 02:39 pm

This is a great piece. Thanks, Mary.

4. dtemkin - September 07, 2010 at 03:29 pm

Bravo! How brilliant (but sadly, rare) to look at the situation from the students' perspective. Reflection on our own classroom experience as students would probably confirm all the insights.

I'd agree with everything except the conclusion that silence is OK. Shouldn't education be partially to facilitate students' maturity and comfort participating and contributing? Wouldn't the other students benefit from hearing a wider range of points of view? And wouldn't class discussions be more interesting with more participants?

I find that having students discuss questions in pairs or threes, as cpri2405 mentions above, helps a lot.

I'd just add this: After such brief discussions, students are much more likely to be willing to report back to the class what they shared with their partners.

5. aeonelpis - September 07, 2010 at 06:29 pm

This semester, I am experimenting with collaborative note-taking and reflections wiki in my classes precisely because of the silent students. Students can take more time to process their thoughts, and at least one student per class session is tasked with linking that day's material with a bigger picture. I was concerned that I might see a dip in in-class discussion and participation without points allocated to it, but my classes continue to chat with me, and I have already seen more note-taking happening in all of my classes. The wiki serves to create a space for those who want to think and integrate while in class to participate, as well. We'll see how it goes, but, so far, I think this is a good method to facilitate participation and honor the role of silence.

6. bghansel - September 08, 2010 at 09:29 am

Thanks for the contribution! I'm glad you did this research, which shows that collecting information and assessing learning is about more than gathering test scores and graduation rates.

I also like the suggestions of the commenters on how instructors can try to deal with this situation. I'd encourage aenelpis to write up the results of the collaborative note-taking experiences.

7. zefelius - September 09, 2010 at 04:02 am

Well written and insightful.

But many of these observations are non-controversial.

It is hard to disagree with the idea that silence isn't "necessarily" a problem, or that it doesn't "necessarily" indicate failure. Likewise, silence "can" be an active, generative space for thinking and reflection. If there is merely one quiet but successful student in our classes, these statements are themselves necessarily true.

But in my experience, the vast majority of students are unprepared for their classes. A book such as Bauerlein's "The Dumbest Generation" shows quite clearly that students simply do not study even half as much as needed for most college courses. It's a nice, optimistic thought to suggest that silence is the misunderstood sign for deeper reflection and complex social negotiations, but if students have done their homework and understand the material,they should have no problem contributing to classroom discussions.

8. 11242283 - September 09, 2010 at 06:50 am

As someone who was myself very quiet in my undergraduate classes, so much so that one professor, when we became friends after my graduation, labelled me a "lurker" I am very sympathetic to the notion that silence can be a generative space. It was for me and I like to think (hope) that it improved my active listening capabiliies, a skill that is increasingly devalued by "active" classrooms where the priority is put on speaking but not necessarily on real dialogue -- y'know, you speak, I listen and consider what you say and perhaps even let you influence me, and than I respond, etc. Classroom "discussion" whether in the group as a whole or in small groups too often devolves into a parody of what we see on t.v. chat shows --- pushing your own talking points, impervious to actual conversation.

That said, what a surprise I had when I got to graduate school, where a premium was put on discussion and "lurking" had little value. If, as I believe it should, part of what students take away from their undergraduate years are the skills to equip them for whatever career they want, we do quiet students (myself included) a disservice by not requiring them to develop a public voice. A "lurker" in most workplaces will be consistently undervalued and without the practice of speaking up from their schooling will be overlooked and disregarded. Talking is a skill and we need to cultivate it. Honestly, we "normalize" all kinds of cultural practices in our classrooms so I am consistently surprised that somehow we valorize the right to silence. (OK, just writing that, I get how/why people don't want to intellectually incriminate themselves in classroom discussion, but . . . ). Finding that voice on an e-discussion board is a useful first step, but unless students learn to embody that voice at some point, they have not equipped themselves for participation in the workplace or in civil society.

For me the puzzle is having students who would be better off shutting up a bit more and those who need to talk. The issue isn't silence vs. speaking as far as I'm concerned, it's helping students to understand what a real conversation is, teaching active listening and responsible, considered speech. A classroom of squawkers is just as bad as one full of silent stones.

Finally (promise), while e-discussions have their place -- just a glance at most 'comments' sections on web pages show that the kind of empowerment that happens when no one can actually see you take ownership of your ideas and opinions suggests that we all need to be more responsible in and better at moderating e-discussions. In many respects the rise of the web-comments section has encouraged uncivil discourse and has given more license to "conversation" as my talking points/abuse vs. your talking points/abuse than anything we do in the classroom.

9. davyddjg - September 09, 2010 at 06:56 am

While silence may not be a problem in a "banking model" teaching approach, for those of us who believe that knowledge is developed through active discussion involving students teaching each other along with the faculty, silence is anti-social and deprives others in the group of learning opportunities.

10. englishwlu - September 09, 2010 at 07:18 am

I was raised Quaker, so believe me when I say I appreciate silence. However, in a small discussion based classroom, most of the actual learning takes place in the oral give and take, ideally among students and not just in the quizzing pattern of Socratic questioning. A blend of strategies helps quiet students participate at least a little. Making sure everyone speaks on the first day in a low-stakes exercise helps. Quick writing exercises either on a wiki or discussion board or (my favorite) in class for a few minutes leads to high quality discussion in which even the quiet can participate. Small group work also helps the quieter find new roles as the more vocal (and can help an über-talker learn to take turns with others of his/her kind). It helps here to assign a focused task so they don't talk off topic. When shy students tell me that they find participating hard (it's a graded component of all my courses since I'm trying to cultivate their public speaking skills), I remind them that others find paper-writing and test-taking hard. We wouldn't consider valuing the blank blue book, would we?

11. rab60 - September 09, 2010 at 07:41 am

I was the quiet person in my classes of over 40 years ago and it wasn't "racism, sexism, and classism." I was simply shy and lacked confidence. I would choose not to answer the question rather than risk being embarrassed. I did not like being that way, but that's the way it was. You might attribute that problem to the fact that my older brother and I were the first in our family to finish high school, but I know many counterexamples including my brother. Now that I have been a Professor for many years I often comment that I would not have liked having me as a student. But, I know them when they are in my class. They never answer questions, but some do well on the tests. I'll settle for that.

12. dcaristi - September 09, 2010 at 07:47 am

I agree with davyddjg. There can be wonderful ways individuals can learn. Sitting under a tree reading a book can be a fantastic isolated learning experience. But the tremendous advantage of having a community of scholars is the value of sharing the knowledge. Participating is not only valuable to the individual, but the group also benefits. Sure, constant participation is not expected but neither can a student refrain from participating because it doesn't suit his/her learning style. Reading does not suit some students' learning styles yet we don't make it optional.

13. amanda_watson - September 09, 2010 at 08:45 am

I was extremely quiet all through my undergrad years and into graduate school. My professors unanimously agreed that I "needed to participate in class more often." I was quiet not so much because I was shy (though that was true during my first couple of years of college) but because I'm an introvert, and I need time to think before I put my ideas out there. I don't "think out loud"; my brain just doesn't work that way. The problem with a lot of class discussion is that it moves so fast that by the time someone like me is ready to chime in, the rest of the class has moved on to the next topic. That's not the only reason students don't talk, but I don't think my experience is at all unique.

I don't think I even realized all of that until I started teaching and had to confront student silence from the other side. One of the things I learned to do was to periodically ask the students to stop, reflect, and write down a few sentences about whatever topic we were discussing, and then share them out loud. It seemed to help turn classroom silence from something awkward and empty into something productive.

14. cleverclogs - September 09, 2010 at 09:18 am

I've long been interesting in silence, and there's a great book called "Unsoken: A Rhetoric of Silence" by Cheryl Glenn that I highly recommend.

Lately, though, I've been wondering about this: what exactly are classroom meetings for? I've always thought of them as discussion labs, in a way; we all do the outside work and then we try to fit our ideas together, see where they clash, rethink together, etc. Students can have all the quiet time they need to process information *outside* of class.

I guess I'm just concerned that the kind of quiet learning and processing that is being talked about is actually what students should be doing on their own time. If the only time they're thinking about the topics under discussion is the short time we meet, and if classroom practices encourage that by setting up an expectations that class time will be given over to processing time, then I don't see how I can teach as deeply as I feel I need to.

15. duchess_of_malfi - September 09, 2010 at 10:08 am

I agree with previous posters that a) the reason most students are silent is lack of preparedness, not contemplative natures, and b) we are not doing them favors by allowing them to remain silent in every class.

I believe a) because I've given students anonymous written surveys using, at different times, closed-ended and open-ended answer formats, and "didn't do the reading" is the main reason they do not join in discussion. Many are shy (afraid of the adrenaline and faster hearbeat that come from taking a social risk), but shyness plus not doing the reading is a hard combination to help with. Some have had bad experiences in the past; those are the students most likely to fear being made to feel stupid. Some say they are more talkative in some classes and less talkative in others.

If they didn't do the reading, it's a good thing they're quiet. Few things are as confusing to other students as the student who didn't do the reading but wants to talk about it. But this is only a least-bad situation. Ideally, I want the room to be filled with people who have something to say and are willing to say it.

I believe b) because of the career I had before grad school and because of my grad school experience. Whatever careers our students are heading toward, in the U.S., the person who never speaks up in staff meetings, seminars, or other expected places is the employee or student who is overlooked, underestimated, and in some cases even resented. Someone who never, ever contributes to a goal of discussion, whether that discussion is seen as a way to improve learning, to brainstorm solutions to an organizational problem, or for any other reason, is not participating in the community of people trying to achieve that goal. It's a choice, and I don't force students to speak, but they are giving up an opportunity to practice an important skill if they never talk. Speech class can't carry all the weight.

I've found that counting participation as much as 20% of the course grade has no impact on the quantity and quality of class discussion, so I stopped doing that long ago. But I have found other ways to increase discussion, and I think it's worth doing. Obviously, creating an environment of trust is critical. Class size shouldn't be overlooked as a factor, though, and few of us have any control over that.

16. mteter - September 09, 2010 at 11:16 am

I build in a number of ways students can share what they know, and reflect on the readings assigned for the class. I incorporate online discussion boards (public) and post-class reflections (private). I used to treat class participation as a "bonus" for their grade, now I make it part of the grade, because I allow students to participate in different ways.

17. drgrieves - September 09, 2010 at 11:16 am

I was silent because I would otherwise have monopolized the conversation with the professor. (I was a smart student and knew my stuff.)

And also because I am a quiet person in general.

18. queenb0213 - September 09, 2010 at 11:37 am

Fantastic piece. I am a quiet student, and often people assume that I have nothing of interest to say, which is very rarely the case. Outside of class, I am extremely vocal and opinionated. In class, however, I consider it to be the professor's time. I want to hear what the professor has to say and learn from him or her. Only when the call for other opinions or questions arises will I speak. I don't want to interrupt the flow of the class or distract myself from the professor's point by interjecting.

Also, it takes time for me to process what is being said in class. I like to compare the opinions of the professor or the class to my opinions or the opinions I have already formed. Then, I will present my thoughts in the next class, once I have been given proper time to think. Besides, I am usually so busy taking notes that I cannot form an intelligent answer at that very moment.

19. kmbingo1 - September 09, 2010 at 12:12 pm

When I taught English composition courses at community colleges I realized many of the quiet students would stay after to talk to me individually. I made sure to pack up slowly and give them time to approach me, and we'd often have a little parade going down the hallway. I also reiterated that email and office hours were great ways to express views. I was one of those quiet students, and it used to drive me to distraction when an instructor would look at me with a slightly patronizing smile and ask me if I had anything to add. I'm fine, I would think to myself, let's just move on.

20. 11140525 - September 09, 2010 at 12:16 pm

@ 11242283, thank you for your comment. It's necessary complementary reading.

21. 22122488 - September 09, 2010 at 12:35 pm

I also dare suggest that periodic short silence by professors is also a crucial element of good teaching. Let that silence be the "fertile time" when what was said can be properly digested mentally and stir-up or fully and properly understood by students. Professors who speak non stop and do not allow these critical moments of silence are missing out a most important tool in pedagogy. Silence is good for learning - If during those silent moments the brain runs with all gears.

22. druce - September 09, 2010 at 01:05 pm

In the hands of an able teacher, this is commendable.
Unfortunately, teachers "playing the class" for popular appeal, usually target individuals for exposure, ridicule and example...This is particularly true of adult students wanting not to compete with vibrant, younger students who are usually the more accepting faction in the room. Never mind that adult money is as useful to a college as young adult money...
When a teacher insists that "vocalizing" is part of the grade, then they have you! (Let alone the grade...allocation...etc.
Faculty like these are not on stage, and not fooling anyone. A student quickly gets the message and remains silent! In fact, colleges should shown those Faculty "showoffs" the door of the college - Too much money has been wasted on placating these Faculty-type egotists!
So, lets not punish the quiet students. Lets fire the Faculty!

23. smhst57 - September 09, 2010 at 01:40 pm

@ 11242283, I second the appreciation for your commentary. You highlight precisely the issues at stake in classroom discussion. Effective seminar skills (listening and contributing to discussions) are something that can and should be taught. I think we do many students a disservice by assuming that differences in learning strategies and other skills are inherent and immutable. They may arise from different cultural backgrounds, temperaments, or life experiences, to which we need to be sensitive. However, we also have the responsibility to encourage the development of a wide range of skills and learning strategies. More and more, I feel that such differences become an excuse for not striving to develop these skills, e.g. "I am quiet, therefore I shouldn't have to speak." or vice versa, "I talk a lot, that's simply how I learn, therefore I shouldn't have to be quiet and listen." As such, speaking should be encouraged among all students, just as silence should be encouraged for all.

24. aus10 - September 09, 2010 at 02:01 pm

Thanks to the author for making the case, but do we really need a study to point this out? Can we really not tell the difference between a student who is actively tuned into a discussion and one who just isn't paying attention? There are many, many reasons that a student might not speak up. We might not always know why, but we should know if they are 'present' in other ways. To discount a student because of what we assume their silence to imply is lazy and small-minded.

25. mccfan - September 09, 2010 at 03:13 pm

My main thought about the quiet students when I was a student was that non-participators were selfish, cowards, or both. Why is it they were not willing to engage with the rest of us? What interesting new insights might we have been able to reach together, as the result of a robust discussion. But, no, they prefer to keep quiet. Now that I'm on the other side of things, I see some students refusing to participate because they are not engaged in the class (partly my fault, but partly theirs) or afraid to say anything controversial that might offend anyone--we're on a small campus, so an embarassing statement might follow them around campus.

26. t_bunson - September 09, 2010 at 06:42 pm

Mccfan, I suspect I wasn't (and probably wouldn't today be) the norm, but in school I was both shy and afflicted with an unpredictable stutter. I would have been insulted to know that anyone could consider me a selfish coward for not speaking up. I loved learning, listening, and being in a classroom environment, but it was often torture for me to pipe up in group discussions. None of your characterizations would have explained my behavior.

In fact, despite its good intentions, I'm slightly annoyed that this article seems to place silent people into a homogenous group. The reasons for muteness are practically infinite. I suppose it's fair for a professor who has reviewed a student's semester of work to make a general judgment call, but in most cases it's simply not fair (or even possible) to accurately ascribe from afar someone's silence to any specific reason.

As an addendum to nobody in particular -- if you haven't been shy, then you don't know what shy feels like. It comes in many strengths and forms and it almost always sucks. I've recognized it in people from all walks of life. Don't ever get comfy with character assumptions.

27. amnirov - September 09, 2010 at 08:29 pm

Try being silent in business meeting after business meeting. See how long you last on the job.

28. 11310533 - September 10, 2010 at 01:04 am

Can't agree more. I was inspired by this article.

29. 11161452 - September 10, 2010 at 01:21 am

Someone mentioned faculty "showoffs"...well, I was in plenty of graduate courses, especially the ones taught by TA's, where certain egomaniacal students were allowed to constantly share their genius with the rest of us. In the end, it was annoying and distracting, and I can't tell you how I longed for those twits to be absent. This mainly occurred in the classrooms of less-experienced teachers, but there was one elderly musicology professor who allowed the "genius" to dominate the class; then said genius made a fatal error in correcting the prof once too often, and what ensued was the prof screaming at the genius in the hallway outside the classroom (where the rest of us were quietly cheering).

Sometimes quiet is bliss.

30. csgirl - September 10, 2010 at 06:25 am

When did all these discussion courses start cropping up? I went to undergrad in the late 70's, early 80's, at a large urban research university, and I do not remember a single "discussion course". Granted, I was in a technical major (math/computer science), but I did take humanities courses - a film class, 2 upper division medieval art history courses, and a grad course in medieval history (for my own fun), and I mostly remember the professor talking in those courses. The art history and history courses were fantastic, and I still remember and think about the material I learned in those courses even today. We did a lot of writing in those courses (outside of class, not in class). But the class meetings themselves were strictly lectures.
One of the reasons I was thinking about this recently is that I am teaching a non-technical course for the first time ever, and I realized that I am now expected to have "discussions". Since I never took such a course, I am madly trying to figure out how one does this, and what my class will gain from this. So far, I have come to the conclusion that discussion may be more for the professor - it fills up time that we would otherwise have to fill with Powerpoint slides, and quite frankly, it is more entertaining for me than just standing there yakking. My students are speaking up too, because it is part of their grade. But so far, I haven't heard any student comments that actually improves learning for the rest of the class. The students simply don't know very much about the material.

31. karenkellywriter - September 10, 2010 at 07:29 am

Thank goodness you're on Staten Island. But thank you for giving another battle cry to students who "don't feel comfortable" in the classroom because they are expected to study and pay attention and participate (how the hell did they get into college, oh right, I forgot. Staten Island). Now they can rally the tired battle cry of Racism! Sexism! and so on whenever they don't like an outcome - just the the current leader of the free world.

32. cgregoryp - September 10, 2010 at 12:03 pm

as a person who has taught many composition classes, and who makes it clear to his students that part of their grade is based on participation, i'd have to say that part of the reason that some students do not want to talk in class, is that, as a society, we have put so much emphasis on the written word and the likes of plato and aristotle, that little time has been spent studying the fact that before there was the written word, there was the spoken word. perhaps, if we spent more time studying cultures that value oral communication we'd understand that there is a direct correlation between the written and spoken word. and that to write well and speak well go hand and hand, and that aristotle and plato, and the other folks that we tend to teach aren't the only ones that have something to offer in this regard.

33. ilprofessori - September 10, 2010 at 12:03 pm

An evocative piece--thanks. It reminds me of a class about 16 years ago in which I said to the class that I was enjoying the online discussions, but I was concerned that some people never seemed to contribute and I wondered why that was. There was an embarassed silence for a while until some normally quiet student in the back said "Have you noticed that not everyone speaks in class? Maybe it is the same." Touché.

Further talk clarified that it was not the same people--some quiet listeners in class relished the chance to ramble online and some persistent in-class speakers couldn't, or wouldn't, type.

Others have noted that there are some truisms in this article. Fair enough, but the idea that we learn in diffrent ways is a ruism that bears repeating since so many instructors seem to quickly lose sight of that particular truism.

34. arrive2__net - September 10, 2010 at 06:45 pm

This was a great article that brought up many issues and situations the instructor faces in the classroom. When the article said "Those scenarios conflicted with the kind of student-centered, critical-learning, dialogical classroom I hoped to create" I thought that the student also comes to the course with an agenda for the type of classroom they hoped to create for themselves.

Whether it is appropriate to pressure the student to speak up in class depends somewhat on the learning objectives of the class, obviously in a speech class, or where learning to articulate with speech in an objective, speaking up in class is critical. Save the HIGH pressure to speak up for the classes where speaking is a learning objective.

To the extent that college is a career preparation for occupations that require speaking up, providing a grade incentive for speaking up in most classes is appropriate. Even if the student is a little shy or otherwise reluctant, a little pressure for speaking up, by grade incentive, seems to be justified because the student is there to learn ... improve ... to change for the better ... being taken a little outside their comfort zone is to be expected.

Over the long term, professors become known quantities on campus, and student who prefer more or less silence can steer toward the professors who provide that kind of experience. If all professors require some talking for a certain required course, then maybe the requirement has merit.

Students also can express their knowledge of a subject by getting high grades on tests, and prove their ability to articulate on the subject in papers, so in most courses speaking in class is just part of the picture.

Bernard Schuster

35. bbaylis - September 10, 2010 at 10:09 pm

Two years ago I had a completely different view on this topic. This difference has come about because a traumatic brain episode has taken away most of my ability to speak spontaneously. Several commenters mentioned that some students can't speak up even if they wanted to. I now know exactly what they are talking about. Since I am now suffering from aphasia and epilespy, I have tried to learn as much as I can about how the human brain works. It is truly amazing. Aphasia is a communications deficiency. For some the deficiency exhibits itself in the intake of information, while for some it exhibits itself in the outflow of information. It does not affect intelligence, and for some there are communication problems in both directions. In my case, it is easier for me to read and write then it is to listen and speak. It just takes me a lot longer than it did before the brain episode. There are a number of other communications deficiencies that do not affect intelligence. Many of these deficiencies are not necessarily due to a traumatic brain episode . In a class, do we know our students, their difficulties, learning styles, and their goals or are we just trying to create clones of ourselves, no matter what?

36. m1m2creative - September 12, 2010 at 02:19 am

I was always a quiet student and I am a quiet person. I just don't see the value of saying something unless it is powerful and meaningful. Often people repeat that same thing in 10 different ways. I also often found that certain classrooms didn't feel "safe," meaning there was a lack of respect in the room for one another thus making speaking out something I felt afraid to do. When I did speak out I had sometimes hostile reactions that weren't tempered by professors and thus I deemed it not worth my energy, especially since I had to save it for matters of survival, to go to my nearly full time, juggle family and life, debt etc...

37. drgrieves - September 12, 2010 at 03:26 pm

"Try being silent in business meeting after business meeting. See how long you last on the job."

But this isn't business, is it?

I.e., is there a point? Or is somebody "speaking" just to speak?

38. rocco99 - September 14, 2010 at 11:54 am

It's a little discouraging but not surprsing to find that most of the responses here reflect a lack of understanding of the nature of introversion. Some people have real difficulty opening up, even with people they know somewhat. Sometimes it IS a choice or a style, and sometimes they just can't, or can only do so with great difficulty. But please don't equate lack of verbalization with intelligence, courage, preparedness, or mental health. How many times I have heard or read evaluations about someone that begin, "He/She is quiet, but very bright. Or words to that effect. Wake up extroverts, the world does not revolve around you.

Grieves, I manage a fairly large staff, and their styles range the gamut. Thank goodness they are not all clamoring to have their say in one forum. There are easy ways to engage the opinions and input of those who are not comfortable or inclined to compete to have their voices heard. And they are valuabel contributors to the overall effort, usign their strenghts.

Some of the suggestions and strategies iterated by the author and commenters are worth considering.

39. tardigrade - September 19, 2010 at 06:21 pm

"One of the reasons to have students work in teams or in pairs is to get them talking to each other - a practice usually much more valuable for their learning than answering teacher questions in front of the entire class."

In these situations I usually feel I have to hold back giving input to allow the other person to comment. When it comes to speaking up in the broader class, I almost never feel this (unless my contribution would undermine the point the instructor intends to make). Since I eventually want to teach though, this probably is a valuable learning experience.

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