TEACHING NOTES: More on talking

We continue our series on Strategies for keeping students engaged in class. Last month we looked at getting your class discussions moving along. This month we dig a little deeper into effective discussions, with a particular focus on getting those quieter students engaged before semester ends.

There are a number of influences on students engaging in discussion including preparation, classroom environment, whether its graded, confidence, anxiety and so on (Rocca, 2010). Still, if students understand your participation expectations, how discussions are supposed to work and come prepared for class, why aren’t they joining in discussions? Well, some students are simply more reticent to contribute publicly than others and it might be because of the way they think.

Some students have more outward-focused personalities and will find it easier to use talking as a means to test their ideas and opinions. Others think better alone and prefer to speak once those ideas have formed.  Ideas do generally benefit from being tested by outside perspectives but there is a balance to be found between testing ideas and groupthink simply because some students are louder or more compelling than others.

Higher education historically favours use of workshops and seminar-style lessons as an environment of student learning. This advantages those who are most comfortable throwing ideas around. But, what about students who do better talking with only one or two others, or who need that time to think quietly to develop ideas? How can you teaching be more inclusive so that all students are benefitting from discussion, not just those who are the most outgoing?

Well, here are some ideas to get you going:

  • Acknowledge that we can think differently – doing this early on helps students understand that simply because they aren’t more outward-thinking, doesn’t make them inadequate in any way. This will help improve confidence to participate in a way that’s comfortable for them.
  • Grade accordingly – avoid grading simply by how often a student speaks. Look at the quality contributions. A quiet, thoughtful student can change the entire course of a conversation with one insightful comment. Remember to let students know how you are grading so that more dominant students understand that their contribution quality is important, not just their voice.
  • Challenge students to participate differently – remind more vocal students to pay attention to others and practise listening. Encourage quieter students to contribute more frequently so they learn how to seek feedback and how to discuss effectively.
  • Talk to students one-on-one – especially those who are particularly quiet in class. Remind them of how you are grading and give them some strategies for participating in discussions (see Walking the talk)
  • Include a variety of classroom activities – ask students to work in very small groups (two to four people) early in the class so they have the opportunity to remember any preparation and formulate and discuss any further ideas around it. Then a larger group discussion can occur. This allows quieter students the opportunity to formulate their ideas in a way that is better suited for them and also helps prepare them for larger group participation.

By planning your class discussions more inclusively, all students will become more engaged and feel they have the opportunity and support to participate as needed and learn the discussion skills necessary to develop those graduate qualities of communicating effectively and being collaborative.

This article was based on a two-part article by Jeff Schwegman (Stanford University). For more background, the articles can be found here.

Kim, Heejung. “We Talk, Therefore We Think? A Cultural Analysis of the Effect of Talking on Thinking.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 83 (2002): 828–42.

Rocca, Kelly. “Student Participation in the College Classroom: An Extended Multidisciplinary Literature Review.” Communication Education 59 (2010): 185–213.

Written by Cassandra Hood
Lecturer in Higher Education – CILT

Posted in
Teaching Notes

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