Practices: Tips for Opening up a Quiet Class

Tips for Opening Up a Quiet Class


Contributed by Whittier Strong



We talk a lot about the introvert/extrovert divide, but how does it play out in the classroom, say, when the instructor thrives on discussion but the students are naturally quiet? Here are some tips for how to make the classroom more comfortable for all involved.

Detailed Description:

Every class of students is different, and over the first weeks of the semester, a class develops a collective personality. The challenge for the instructor is to ascertain that collective personality while simultaneously developing the approach to instruction that works best for both teacher and students. If an instructor has designed their course to involve a good deal of class discussion, it can be especially tough if you have a naturally quiet group of students. Below are some tips to help you adjust how you teach without sacrificing your goals for the close.

(Note: Several of these tips came from Dr. Jennifer Schell of UAF. I am including here those that I have used successfully in the classroom.)

Make it clear from the beginning that it’s okay for them not to speak up. This might sound counterintuitive. Aren’t we supposed to encourage students to be engaged in the material and to discourage disengagement? It’s important to remember that different students engage the material in different ways. For instance, doodling, once frowned upon in the classroom, is now recognized as a means for improving memory retention. Also bear in mind that you might put forth questions that require time to think, which I will touch on later.  

If you’re teaching a writing course, the most important thing is that they develop their writing. If their writing is improving over the course of the semester, the consideration of classroom engagement, while not unimportant, is secondary. And pressuring or guilting students into speaking will only up the level of discomfort and anxiety in the classroom, and make the silence all the more awkward.

Be comfortable with silence. Especially if you’re an extrovert, this can be a huge challenge. Our cultural norm is to fill silence with noise (ergo the omnipresent earbuds and headphones). But silence is not necessarily a bad thing, especially in the classroom. Silence gives people space to think. And if you provide that space, there’s a good chance your students will thoughtfully engage the material. It’s crucial that you do not shame them for not speaking up in class.

Don’t take the silence personally. This is perhaps hardest of all, especially if you are a beginning teacher. It’s tough at first to determine whether a student is genuinely uninterested or simply quiet. Remember that there are many possible factors. The students may feel nervous and intimidated about speaking up, especially if they are in their first semester of college. They may come from a culture where such student engagement is not practiced or is even considered disrespectful to the teacher. Or, quietness may simply be a natural part of their constitution. Give students the benefit of the doubt before jumping to the conclusion that they are not engaged or are disregarding you. Over the course of weeks, as you get to know students as individuals, you’ll understand better why they do what they do.

Take time to learn your students as individuals. In the first few weeks, student and teacher are feeling each other out. It’s important not to jump to conclusions as to why a student is behaving a certain way. The one-on-one conference is an excellent way to get to know each student better in a non-threatening environment, which is why it’s helpful to have your first conferences relatively early in the semester. I also make it a habit of arriving to class early–usually 15 minutes before the official start of class–and sticking around after class, so that I can get to know my students better, and they can get to know me better, in an informal, unstructured setting. Among the many benefits of these interaction is that you can better determine why a student might appear not to be engaged in class. Sometimes the student who is quiet in the classroom setting will open up more one-on-one. Getting to know the students as individuals will let you know whether their reticence stems from something benign, like shyness or cultural background, or something that requires your attention, like depression or willful disrespect.

Have the students write before they speak. Have the students take out pen and paper and write for ten minutes on the topic of discussion. Then have each student read what they wrote. There are a number of advantages to this technique. First, students who are uncomfortable speaking extemporaneously may find it much easier to speak when they have their ideas plotted out before they speak. Second, what they write may stimulate class discussion, especially if you ask the class what they think of what a student wrote. Finally, you have evidence that the students are actually engaged in the material.

Have the students work in small groups. Students are often more comfortable with each other than with their teacher, and for the student, classroom discussion can feel like the student talking with the teacher.

First, break the students into groups of three or four. In the first few weeks of the semester, I make sure the groups change from class–either by assigning groups or by telling students to work with someone they haven’t worked with before–so that everyone gets to know each other. This will also help you discover how different student combinations interact. It’s helpful for this exercise to have a mix of personalities in each group, but sometimes the quietest students gravitate to each other, in which case, their group may need a gentle nudge from you to get the ball rolling with their discussion. Ultimately, you will learn over time what method of breaking into groups will work best for you and your students, respecting both their autonomy and your goals.

Then, present the topic for discussion. You can determine how long the discussion should go on based on your topic. You might want to check in with groups halfway through, again, depending on the topic, the level of engagement, etc. Remember that a quieter group might benefit from your giving them a little nudge. Also, have each group assign a speaker to present a summary of their discussion to the rest of the class.

Finally, have each group’s speaker present their summary. After each speaker, encourage the class to respond to the summary. As the students have spent a good bit of class time processing the topic and talking about it with others, they usually feel less put on the spot in class discussion.

Finally, relax! Sometimes easier said than done, especially if you’re teaching for the first time. If you’re just starting out, you’ll get more comfortable in time, trust me. If you’re an excitable, talkative extrovert, you might come off as tense even when you feel relaxed. If you have the habit of pacing in front of the class, experiment with sitting at your desk instead. Focus on how you speak to the students. A fast talker might need to slow down; a loud talker might drop the volume a wee bit. If you appear relaxed, the students will relax and be more likely to open up in class.

And remember that feeling confident will help you relax. Again, this might be a challenge if you’re a first-time teacher. But you were chosen to teach because others believed you had the ability to do so. Don’t worry–you’ve got this.


Photo: Nguyen Hung Vu; Portfolio:

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