Week One: Silence

By Judith Dutill, Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence

Excitement. Anticipation. Enthusiasm. These are all words I would use to describe how I feel in the weeks and days leading up to a new term. Yet, despite my eagerness, even my widest smile, best jokes, and most engaging team building icebreakers are sometimes met with silence so great, the only thing that can be heard is the sound of my proverbial bubble bursting.

I know that if I hunker down and weather the first few days or weeks of awkward silences, things might pick up once we all get to know one another. But what if it doesn’t? (And, sometimes it doesn’t.) I have found that it is better to work on getting my quiet classes talking earlier in the term than if I let the inactivity persist to the point that silence is what ultimately defines our time together.

Now that a new term is underway, if you feel like you are the only one in the classroom with something to say, try one (or several) of these techniques to get your quiet classes talking…

On-ground classes

  • Keep students moving; try setting up learning/activity stations around the classroom, have students work in small groups before reporting out to the larger class, let students share ideas by writing on the board or creating a post-it wall.
  • Ask students what they need to get more engaged in the class. Use an anonymous survey or poll at the end of class to capture feedback.
  • Use positive reinforcement; notice and acknowledge when class is going well, thank students for their participation and responses.
  • Begin class with a discussion icebreaker such as a current event or a provocative image or news story.
  • Assign student discussion leaders; allow students to create the prompts and facilitate the discussion.
  • Create homework assignments that will connect with the next class meeting’s discussions so students are more likely to arrive prepared to discuss the day’s topics.
  • Use classroom games such as Jeopardy, Bingo, or poling games such as Kahoot.


Online classes

Quiet classes can occur in any modality. If you have a quiet online class (which I currently do), you may need to think creatively to get them talking.

  • Reach out to students via email as a reminder that the discussion board needs attention from the class.
  • Ask students what they need to get more engaged in the class. Use an anonymous survey or poll at the end of class to capture feedback.
  • Model a post by creating a starter thread for student reply.
  • Post a mid-week discussion or deploy a mid-week poll (use a polling tool such as Poll Everywhere) on a current event/relevant controversy.
  • Assign student discussion leaders; allow students to create the prompts and facilitate the discussion.
  • Provide multiple discussion prompts so students can find their way to the discussion topics they are most interested in.
  • Use the Groups tool in Blackboard to create small group discussions. Students may be more willing to open up at the beginning of the term with a small group versus the larger group.
  • Encourage students to end their discussion post replies with a lingering question. This will provide other students with a springboard for their replies.
  • Encourage students to share relevant examples by posting multimedia in their discussion posts.
  • Engage students with activities other than discussion boards; try using a VoiceThread asynchronous video discussion, building a class Wiki, or deploying a PlayPosit interactive video (tip: students can also create PlayPosit videos for their peers).

What techniques do you use to get students talking? Tell us about it in the comments section!

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    Great post! I have had some success getting a quiet group to talk by utilizing a modified Just-In-Time technique: at the start of class, I will write the day’s objective(s) on the board and distribute a blank notecard. Then, I will ask the students to write down anything they think they already know about the concept(s) at stake in the objective. After collecting the notecards, I read a few out loud (without naming the author, of course) and validate the comments, whatever they are. This validation is crucial, even if the content is wide of the mark. Then I ask if anyone can relate to the comments, and usually a few folks will start to talk. In addition to getting a better handle on what students already know about the material, this technique usually cuts down on the “I’m the only one that doesn’t understand what’s going on” factor, which often is the source of the silence I’m trying to break through. Anything we can do to make error seem like an organic, acceptable part of the learning process (rather than a negative outcome to be avoided at all costs) will usually get students more comfortable talking in class.

    I need to get better with making just-in-time-teaching part of my teaching habits @MatthewVickless. Thanks for the reminder!

    I’m glad you mentioned it polling–which is great (no stakes) way of getting even the quietest students involved in the life of the classroom. Like just-in-time-teaching, it’s important to close the feedback loop with students. The day after I take/close a poll, I will dedicate at least five minutes (more if there is conversation) to discussion. I start with those parts of the class that I can’t/won’t change (like getting rid of assignments in a writing class) and move on to the ‘negotiables’ (like the structure of an exam) to see if any students want to actively persuade me and then end with at least one thing that I will tweak based on their feedback. It’s a great way to build trust and communication–and improve my teaching!

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