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The Awkward Silence


It’s an inevitable occurrence in any college classroom: the awkward silence that follows an instructor’s question to his or her students. Why aren’t they responding? Do they understand the question? Did they read the assigned material? Who will crack first – them or me?

When silences occur in a classroom, it’s important to consider these questions. It is also important to understand that silence is okay; it’s even encouraged at times. Instructors should be willing to wait up to 20 seconds for students to respond. Doing so ensures that students have sufficient time to process the question and formulate a response. However, there will still be times when even well-prepared students, given clear questions and ample time, will not respond. So, how do you get students talking?

Pair Share: To assuage the fear of sharing with the group, ask your students to discuss their responses with a partner. Give the students a time limit for this exercise, and then ask for volunteers to share their responses with the group. Oftentimes this individual sharing validates students’ ideas, making them more willing to share with the group.

“Buzz Groups”: Break students up into small groups and have each individual member share his or her response with the group. Ask the group to formulate a single response to share with the class, based upon all of the group members’ ideas.

Written Responses: Ask students to take three minutes to write down a response to the question. Rather than “thinking aloud,” this exercise gives students the chance to better develop their thoughts before sharing with the group. Similarly, you can provide discussion questions before the class meeting and have students come to class with their written responses.

Cold Calling: Cold calling is the practice of calling on students to respond rather than soliciting volunteers. This technique continues to be a matter of instructor preference, and if you choose to incorporate it into your classroom, you may want to consider several points. First, singling out quiet students for cold calling may actually discourage future participation. Second, if you do not implement this policy from the first day of class, then you may want to consider adopting it incrementally, first using it on open-ended questions where there is no “right” or “wrong” answer. Third, and finally, apply it broadly and consistently to all students – not just the ones who participate less.

Activities such as “buzz groups,” pair share, and written responses allow for the possibility of cold calling without the pressure that tends to accompany it. Calling on students who do not volunteer can be less intimidating if students have had a chance to write down their ideas or to share them with other students. Also, allowing students the option of “passing” helps reduce the potential stress of cold calling.

“Rotating Chair” Format: This technique is an adaptation of cold-calling, except the students do the calling rather than the instructor. The instructor chooses the first respondent and then each student calls on the next contributor. You may choose to set a time limit for this exercise or restrict the number of responses each student can have. This technique will foster familiarity among the students, which may lead to increased (voluntary) participation in the future

As instructors, we need to be comfortable with silence. After all, we are not the ones of whom something has been asked – our students are. Additionally, silence is not necessarily a cause for concern or an indication that you have failed to convey information properly. Students need time to process information and formulate ideas. However, if the silence in your classroom is becoming inhibitive, consider trying one of these techniques to get your students talking.

“Classroom Challenges,” Stanford University, Center for Teaching and Learning

“How to Get Students to Talk in Class,” Stanford University, Center for Teaching and Learning
Svinicki, Marilla. McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers. Twelfth Edition. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006)

APRIL 2013


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