by Tracie L. Miller-Nobles

Crickets—that’s what I like to think when I pose a question to my students, and the response back is silence and blank stares. It’s a frustrating place to be – standing in front of the classroom hoping that anyone, just anyone will answer the question. It reminds me of Ben Stein in his role as an economics teacher in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”.

Stephen Brookfield (2015) in his book, The Skillful Teacher, suggests that students are often reluctant to participate in class either for fear of appearing dumb, or the opposite, appearing too eager or smart. It’s also possible that this generation of student has little experience participating in classroom discussions. Thankfully, though, there are several things that we can do in our classrooms to discourage this “Anyone? Anyone?” experience.

Be Comfortable with Silence. Allowing students to think about their answer to the question and being comfortable with the silence is a hard task as a professor. I ask my students to delay their response to the question until at least one minute has gone by. This gives everyone in the class the opportunity to think about the question and generate an answer.

Snowballing. I then ask students to write down their answer and share their answer with another student. I ask this pair to team up with another pair and discuss the question. If time allows, I then ask this group of four to team with another group of four for a larger discussion. My goal of this exercise is to allow students to reflect independently, but ultimately for them to be drawn into a larger discussion

Chalk Talk Exercise. This exercise involves the professors writing a question on the board – for example, in my tax research course, I might write, “What are the pros and cons of the taxpayer bill of rights?” Students are then encouraged to write their response to the question on the board. The activity should be completed in silence to encourage reflective thinking. Students should also add responses or ask questions on the board to what other students have already written. As a professor, I can participate by drawing lines to make connections or adding additional comments to student responses.

Brookfield (2015) suggests these exercises are a way to produce contributions from the entire class and allow introverts an alternative to the traditional discussion format. I have found that when I utilize these strategies instead of hearing crickets I hear a wonderful symphony of my students’ voices. I hope that they will help create great discussions in your classroom.

Brookfield, S. D. (2015). The skillful teacher: On technique, trust, and responsiveness in the classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.