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How to Get Students to Talk in Class: Strategies for Making a Quiet Class Talk and Encouraging Class Participation

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In the classroom, how long do you typically wait for students to respond after you ask them a question?

 

One second, three, ten seconds, twenty?

 

If a student doesn’t readily know an answer or signals non-verbally they are uncomfortable answering, do you move to another student whose hand shoots up in the awkward silence? How do you as a teacher feel in that moment of silence?

 

I was recently introduced to the groundbreaking research of Mary Budd Rowe, who recorded classroom interactions during the 1960s, '70s, and '80s for exactly these moments of silence. Through two decades of recording and analysis, Dr. Rowe discovered what the typical response of teachers was to silence… and its consequences on student learning, student perceptions and attitudes about teachers and schools, and a host of other outcomes.

 

[For more on Dr. Rowe’s research, see: Rowe, Mary Budd. (1986). Wait Times: Slowing Down May Be a Way of Speeding Up. Journal of Teacher Education, 37(1), 43-50.]

 

Dr. Rowe distinguishes between two types of wait time: Wait Time 1: after a question is asked. Wait Time 2: after a student responds.

 

Two Critical Moments to Pause at Least 2.7 Seconds

 

Wait Time 1: After you ask a student a question.

 

Wait Time 2: After a student pauses in responding and/or seems to be done with their response.

 

The latter silence is the harder to tolerate, as the student looks at you for non-verbal cues that his/her/their response met your expectations or satisfaction. As that silence fills the classroom, nod to the student, maybe even smile, and count the seconds in your head…

 

And see how students respond.

 

Dr. Rowe’s research revealed that waiting three seconds increased students’ verbal fluency by 300-700%, increased linguistic complexity, increased speculative reasoning skills, logic formation, significantly improved students’ perceptions of teachers, increased the number of questions students asked in class, increased the variety of students voluntarily participating in discussions, and improved written measures where items were “cognitively complex.”

 

Simply by waiting three seconds.

 

Not surprisingly, improvements were not just found with student performance.

 

Positive outcomes for teachers included: teachers’ responses exhibited greater flexibility, decreased discourse errors, and improved continuity in the development of ideas. Further, the number and kinds of questions asked by teachers changed, and the expectations teachers held about students who “never talk” changed significantly.

 

Every semester we hear expressions like: I just can’t get them to talk. I have one class that talks all the time, but another it’s like pulling teeth just to get them to respond. I think it’s the time of day. Students seem tired right after lunch. Etc.

 

I challenge you to call on a student and just wait. Nod. Make calm eye contact. Maybe smile a bit. But let the silence build (for a minimum of three seconds)!

 

See what happens.

 

They will talk. Or others will start talking.

 

Listen to their responses, and then pause three seconds when they’re done. And ask a follow-up question.

 

Then repeat the strategy with another student. Ask an open-ended question that genuinely seems interested in learning how they think: How do you feel about this? What are the things you like most here? What was most memorable to you about this experience?

 

And wait… ten seconds if necessary. Or more.

 

Other students will pick up on how interested and calm you are in the silence, and they will start to volunteer responses. They will feel safe, confident, and valued.

 

It will transform your classes and your students’ learning. Students’ perceptions of you as a teacher will go through the roof.

 

She’s such a great listener. He cares about what I have to say. I learned a lot in her class.

 

I think the key is to combine the two kinds of wait times with open-ended questions that are focused on students’ perceptions, feelings, and experiences. If you ask only propositional knowledge-based questions of students that, too, can intimidate students and shut them down. However, if you shift toward a classroom practice that prioritizes students’ care and emotional well-being and combine the strategies embedded in Dr. Rowe’s “wait time” research when listening to students, you will see a significant change in student responses.

 

Classes that “never talk” will come alive!

 

______

 

As always, I am grateful to you for your reading, and I’d be especially grateful when you comment, like, or share this post.

 

If you do try out this three-second-pause strategy, let us know what happens. I would be grateful to learn from you about your experiences!

 

Also what tips or strategies do you recommend that have worked for encouraging class participation?

 

2 Comments
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Thanks for this, Stacey. I only wish I were better at listening, not only in the classroom but in life. All this talk about voice requires listeners. For whatever reason, I equate engagement with speaking. Meanwhile I know that when I'm listening, truly listening, I'm 100% engaged. I am thinking about why I love reading difficult material because I can take my time to process and return to ideas that challenge my thinking. Perhaps I need to think more about discussion as a reading activity. We are, at the best of times, reading the world as another sees it. That should demand the same patience. This wait practice, and it truly demands practice, is essential to effective teaching of ALL students. (Laura Robb just tweeted about teachers not listening as the singular complaint of students nationwide.)

Patricia, I am grateful for how thoughtful and kind your response is. I agree with everything you've said, especially the last part about practice. I had my folks over for dinner last night and between them, Susan, and myself, I'm not sure there was a 2.7 second pause in talking in nearly two hours! I grew up in a household where if you didn't talk up and talk loudly, you never would have gotten a word in. Alas, I'm afraid my experience is not unique. So it really is something that has to be taught and practiced. Listening.

About the Author
Stacey Cochran is a Lecturer teaching academic writing at the University of Arizona. Before that, he taught for nine years in the First-Year Writing Program at North Carolina State University. He has also taught academic and creative writing at East Carolina University and Mesa Community College (AZ). He earned his M.A. in English from East Carolina University in 2001 with a concentration in Creative Writing. He was finalist for the 1998 Dell Magazines Award, a 2004 finalist for the St. Martin's Press/PWA Best First Private Eye Novel Contest, and finalist for the 2011 James Hurst Prize for fiction. He is an experienced videographer and interviewer who was the host of The Artist's Craft, a television show in Raleigh which featured interviews with many bestselling authors and literary scholars.