Feed on

It’s the start of the third week of class and you’re teaching a discussion-based course. You’ve attended a Kaneb workshop on leading discussion and remember hearing that if students don’t speak on the first day of class, they’re more likely not to speak at all. So on the first day, you had students partner up to get to know each other and then introduce their partners to the class. In the several class days since, you’ve made a concerted effort not to answer your own questions and silently count to ten after you ask a question to give plenty of time for students’ answers. You’ve called on one or two silent students directly to encourage them to speak, but you feel uncomfortable doing this too often because putting them on the spot can feel awkward. Yet still only about half the class speaks up regularly. You’re not sure what else to do and are secretly hoping the problem solves itself, but are pretty sure that’s not likely to happen, and aren’t sure what else to try next.

We’ve all been there. It can be a challenge to get quiet students to talk! They often struggle with perfectionism, shyness, and performance anxiety; they may simply have a natural bent for quietude. Rest assured, though, there are plenty of techniques to foster speaking up in class, and it’s important to challenge all students to learn how to participate successfully in a group environment. For very talkative students, this may mean learning to stop speaking sometimes and for quieter students, challenging themselves to speak up a little more. In this post, I’ll run through a number of suggestions to encourage quiet students to contribute. Try one or try them all—though maybe not all on the same day!

From the beginning, engineer an environment that encourages students to speak. Arrange the classroom in a circle to foster conversation. On the first few days of class, employ small group discussion activities so students get to know and trust each other. It’s O.K.—desirable, in fact, especially in the early days of class—if your students do a little personal socializing, not strictly assigned discussion, in those small groups. Explain on the syllabus what role discussion plays in your class and make it a significant part of the participation grade (perhaps even assigning a daily grade), because discussion is a vital part of classroom learning and you truly want to hear what your students have to say. Be clear in your own communication with students, and demonstrate empathy and caring. Get to know their names and a little bit about them. Explain in some detail what discussion is like in your classroom: consider describing particular behaviors you want to see from students and the preparation you expect them to do. Here are a few examples:

Behaviors you might ask of students:

  • no need to raise hands—just start talking, as long as you don’t talk over others
  • show respect for others’ points of view, especially when you disagree (you, the instructor, can perhaps demonstrate a few good responses, such as “I can see where Sarah’s coming from, but I see it differently” or “Jack’s point was insightful; I’d like to offer an alternative,” and model these in your own contributions to discussion)
  • pay attention and respond to the group dynamics to encourage everyone to speak: if you are talking a lot, try limiting yourself to two or three comments per class period. If you are not talking at all, or very little, challenge yourself to make one or two comments per class period.
  • remember that it’s absolutely fine to be wrong and sharing unfinished ideas is welcome—perfectly polished answers are not the goal. Exploration is!

Preparation you might expect of them:

  • prepare readings in advance
  • bring in answers to discussion questions circulated ahead of time
  • bring in questions that came up during the reading
  • write response journals and post them on the course website/blog or email them to the class in advance


As you move through the semester, you’ll likely find that you want to troubleshoot, tweak, and improve your discussions. Even if you incorporated all of the strategies above you’d likely still have a quiet student or two in your group. When you encounter that, consider some of these strategies:

  • distribute and discuss a tip sheet for dealing with fear of public speaking (see Grinnell College link below). Reassure all students that fear of speaking up is completely normal and share with them a few techniques to try out.
  • bring in a provocative question about the material and, starting on one side of the room and moving to the other, ask every student in turn to give a short answer
  • 1- or 2-minute freewrite. This can be useful in a variety of settings: you can ask students to write for 2 minutes about anything on their minds about the day’s material, or you can ask them to reflect on a particular question. You can also use the quick freewrite at any point when discussion stalls, or if students seem to want to talk but are struggling to get answers out.
  • ask for non-verbal participation sometimes: give students flashcards or use a technology service so that they can vote yes/no or give numbered answers in response to questions.
  • know your students’ names and call on them directly. If they don’t have an answer to give, even when you do call on them, let them know that’s O.K. and move on to someone else.
  • add more humor! Show a funny clip, have gregarious students act out a skit, tell some jokes, illustrate your point with an amusing story. Laughing together is a wonderful way to warm up the room.
  • give a “self quiz”: at the start of discussion, ask students to write down the most interesting thing about the day’s material and one question about it. Take volunteers or pick students (or both) to share their answers and get the discussion going.
  • have students sign up to give mini-lectures on discussion material on various days
  • finally, don’t forget to acknowledge the effort quiet students are making when they start speaking up in class. Even if the contributions they offer are really off-base, you can find something to praise while guiding them towards a more correct answer: “You make a great point here, Shawna. Have you thought about idea X? How might that affect your answer?” or “I can tell you’ve been spending time with the material, Jeremy. Let’s all talk more about the interesting idea you brought up. What do other people think?”

The takeaway point: you will encounter quiet students who need encouragement to speak. Be respectful and kind with them, and try a few different techniques. You may not convert the very quiet into gregarious participants (nor is that, perhaps, a desirable goal), but you’re sure to see success if you help them take small steps.


Resources and Further Reading

Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking (Crown Publishers, 2012).

Handout, “Raise Your Voice! How to Speak up in Class,” Grinnell College

The Chatty Professor, “Want to Find Your Voice in Class? Speak UP!”


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