Getting students to talk in class

In the follow-up to last week’s post on making a first impression – which prompted many comments at the conference I was attending – I thought it might be useful to think about this hardy perennial.

Getting students to talk is one of those topics that new teachers find rather difficult (along with its counterpart “how do I shut them up?”), mainly for the reasons I discussed before: the feeling that no one will ever do what you want them to.

With that in mind, I’ll consider the three main ways you can approach this.

The first way is to force them to talk. Obviously, this doesn’t mean getting them in a head-lock, but rather saying something on the lines of: “John, tell us what you think.” Not a question, but a statement.

This is the classic of school rooms the world over. You look around and you see maybe a face that’s eager to contribute, or looking suitably thoughtful, or even someone looking confused, and you want to get that student talking, so that their ideas – good or bad – are shared. Maybe you even pick someone who you know will kick the hornet’s nest, or someone who never speaks. I had a lecturer who used to point at someone at points during his lectures, with the words “stand up and tell us what I’ve been talking about for the past 15 minutes.”

In all these cases, you are trying to use students as a proxy for your own debate, the one you imagined happening when you planned the session. That’s fine, but with a reluctant class, your direction ends up being the only direction, especially if you move to more closed questions (“John, tell us why Usherwood’s ideas are wrong,” for example). In short, it’s an option, but one that you want to keep relatively rare.

The second way is to ask them to talk. This moves us to the world of “can anyone suggest why Usherwood’s ideas are wrong?” It’s a question that invites an answer and thus a discussion between you and them.

The advantage is that you now have the possibility of getting a response from everyone in the room, and thus some momentum. The downside is – clearly – that you will tend to get the usual suspects talking: the confident and the opinionated. If you are interesting in raising the whole class’ standard, then this will only go so far.

Which leads to the third model, encouraging them to talk.

Both of the first two models suffer from a particular problem: you. They both are focused on you and your ideas. Why would someone want to offer an opinion or contribution if they feel that the response is likely to come from you, delivered in front of the whole class?

In this model, you are trying to decentre [no, it’s not a word, but you understand] yourself from this. This means trying to encourage students to talk to each other, with you on the side-lines.

One of the great things about politics/political science is that there is a multiplicity of ways to address or answer most questions, so there is scope to let debate range freely and in its own fashion. You become the cattle-herder, occasionally prodding here and there, often just watching.

Sounds great, but how do you do this?

Take yourself out of the equation, where possible. You can do this by pre-arranging for students to start things with a presentation (including some questions for debate), or by giving the group a task to work on in small groups. The more one can encourage students to take the lead, the more likely they are to open up. Hence, you might just sit and watch, or possibly ask how you can help, rather than producing opinion, which quickly takes the position of gospel.

You might also try doing nothing. This can be taken a very long way – ask me about my Doing Nothing game one day – but if you work on the basis that no one likes a silence, then you might practise being strong and letting someone else fill that silence. That’s not easy to do, especially if you’re starting out, but some moments of awkward shuffling can be very powerful for you. If you want to avoid a reputation as someone who just gives students everything on a plate – and I’d suggest you do want to avoid that – then showing that you are led by their contributions can be a good way to encourage them.

This is all rather schematic, so I’d like to hear your ideas on this too. And if we all feel we’ve solved this one, then we can turn to shutting them up.

3 thoughts on “Getting students to talk in class

  1. I tried something new in class today that is essentially a combination of the above suggestions. I gave the class a number of questions regarding the reading and asked them to discuss two of them in small groups. After giving the class time to discuss, I brought everyone back together and we talked about each question, allowing the groups that discussed each question to take the lead and I filled in any gaps. Overall, I thought that it worked well and it made some individuals, who do not usually speak up in class, participate.

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