Free-riders or silent participants? Appreciating silence in active learning environments

This guest post comes from Patrick Bijsmans & Afke Groen of Maastricht University’s Department of Political Science

We have been following the ALPS-blog discussion on students’ participation between Amanda and Simon with great interest. The situations they discuss are very familiar.

In Maastricht, learning takes place according to the principles of problem-based learning (PBL); through active participation and discussions in tutorials.

In the programmes that we teach in, we can grade students’ participation with a +0.5 on top of the exam grade for exceptionally good participation or a -0.5 for insufficient participation – a system introduced following discussions about the problem of ‘free-riders’.

We too see students who remain silent. We train students, encourage participation and discuss group dynamics, but students may not feel comfortable or skilled to live up to our expectations – certainly not in their first weeks at university.

Indeed, in the discussion between Simon and Amanda, the “problem” seems to be students who do not talk. Teaching is about “getting students to talk” and about “[getting] them to a point where they do the readings and are willing and able to talk about them”.

But to what extent is not talking a problem? Why doesn’t a student talk? And if it’s a problem, who’s problem is it?

The emphasis on active participation actually represents a new way of thinking about student learning, one that may even be alien to some students. As Louisa Remedios, David Clarke and Lesleyanne Hawthorne explain, “[t]here has been a recent shift of instructional paradigm from valuing and encouraging students to be silent so as to actively listen and learn from a more knowledgeable other (teacher), to becoming knowledgeable by speaking and elaborating on content knowledge.”

The value of silence

In our experience, most students who don’t talk, aren’t actually ‘free-riding’. They prepare for tutorials, have extensive notes and are clearly paying attention to what’s being discussed. In addition, PBL extends beyond the classroom, with some students feeling much more comfortable to discuss readings with fellow students when preparing for tutorials.

We also witness various productive forms of “silence”. Just like Jun Jin, we see that silence is used to look at notes, think about what has been said and recall prior knowledge.

As such, silence may be positive for knowledge construction and group learning. Moreover, a silent student may also be a student who is good at (active!) listening: it often requires silence to understand group discussions and dynamics.

We can also strategically use silence as teachers – beyond increasing “wait time” to get someone to fill an awkward silence.

Sure, there are problematic cases of silence. The ‘free-rider’ tends to be easily recognisable: she or he comes to class unprepared, does not contribute to discussions or does so in a non-productive way.

Yet, other students feel scared, shy or uncomfortable to contribute to classroom discussions.

So how can we tell the difference between these students and those who are ‘productively’ silent?

Research shows that tutors in PBL have a good insight into students’ chances of becoming successful in their studies.

We can act based on these insights. Observing silent students and talking to them is important; putting pressure on them surely will not help.

Instead, a tutor’s role is to facilitate group learning and coach students to become better learners. As Simon writes: “[we] might not be at the centre of the classroom, but that doesn’t mean [we] don’t shape, contribute, encourage and support.”

In short, students’ silence is not always a problem. Instead, we should appreciate silence as an inherent element in learning and find other ways in which to coach silent learners without identifying by default them as problematic learners or even ‘free-riders’.