Classroom Conversations by Beverly Delidow

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Dec 23rd, 2013
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If you have taught for any length of time, you’ve heard it. In the middle of a lecture you ask a question, expecting that among the eager faces in front of you there is at least one brave soul who will raise a hand or call out a thoughtful answer. Instead you hear a silence usually reserved for the Library of Congress – or the grave. You even imagine you hear a faint echo, as if you are suddenly alone in a vast, empty room. And you are. All of your students have vanished into classroom camouflage, studiously “elsewhere” in their minds, hoping to avoid having to – gulp – speak aloud.

This will not do! So what to do?

Well, I can’t guarantee all of your students will come back out of hiding – but here are some tips that might help. These are ten ways to kick-start the group interaction, break the ice, banish the echo, and get the responses you are looking forward to.

  1. Elicit responses by some other means first. Try a show of hands, clickers, or written responses. Sometimes students take a while to warm up to the idea of speaking in front of others. Being able to see or hear others’ thoughts simultaneously can help prime them for more adventurous responses.
  2. Ask open-ended questions. Questions that get you one-word answers won’t easily start a discussion – unless you follow it up with another question, which could include my favorite: “WHY?”
  3. Be patient. It’s important to wait long enough for a response before you start speaking again. It can take a while for students to work out an answer, figure out how to phrase it, and then work up the courage to raise their hands. While you’re waiting, be alert to their expressions – you can usually tell which ones are intrigued and want to take a stab at it.
  4. Repeat, rephrase, or break it up. If you don’t get a response, try again or try rephrasing the question or asking just part of it. Again, gradually developing the conversation can help students who are hesitant become engaged.
  5. Divide the work. Ask groups of students to talk to each other, then report to the entire group. Students are rarely shy about talking to each other – this gives them a chance to work out their thoughts and bounce them off of each other before having to go in front of the entire class.
  6. Call on someone. If you know students well enough to know they will respond, call on them by name. If you plan to do this, it’s a good idea to warn students that they may be called on at the beginning of the course.
  7. Give it as homework. Ask the question at the end of a class period and ask them to bring the answer to the next class meeting, at which you will call on them. Allowing them to prepare takes away some of the fear of being “wrong”.
  8. Change the set-up. From a friend who is the best classroom conversationalist I know – arrange the seats in a roundtable formation. You can use seating arrangements to reduce the barriers to conversation. Emphasize collaboration by having students face each other, and by including yourself – seated – in their midst. It can change the dynamic really quickly.
  9. Give them credit for it. In some of my courses students are given points for their active participation as part of their grade in the class. It creates incentive because they cannot earn top grades without engaging in the class discussions. Also, let the students know you consider their responses a vital part of the course – whether or not everyone else agrees with what they say. Just as it would almost impossible to learn good tennis without a partner, a one-sided “discussion” doesn’t work. Everyone learns more in a discussion when they all take part, and when all views are expressed.
  10. Create a supportive atmosphere. If you want students to express themselves freely, they need to be able to do so without fear of being ridiculed or patronized. Make it clear you expect respectful engagement. Model the behavior you want your students to exhibit in attitude and response. Teach them it is possible to disagree in a calm, reasoned and courteous fashion, even when their feelings are passionate. This isn’t just a classroom skill – it’s a lifelong good practice.

There are few classroom events more energizing than a good exchange of ideas. Here’s to getting that generator going in your own courses.

© Beverly Delidow, Ph.D. | delidow@marshall.edu

Beverly Delidow is a professor, writer, and photographer in West Virginia. She has published articles, fiction, poetry, and photographs in a number of forms.

And as a college or university faculty member, you have many opportunities for success and failure. If you would like additional tips, tools, and techniques that you can use to support your successes, then you will want to access the The Compendium of Productivity Tips for Professors a step by step guide that will help you have a successful year and a compelling career as an academic.

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