Feed on

It’s virtually guaranteed that, no matter how energized a discussion facilitator you are, or how exciting the material you’re covering is, you will have a few silent students in your classroom. This can be demoralizing, especially for a new teacher, since it often appears that students who don’t respond aren’t as interested in the subject matter. Additionally, it can be hard to gauge how well those particular students are following your lecture or the classroom discussion. Here are some tips on how to engage students who are habitually quiet in class:

  • As is so often the case, planning ahead can save you trouble later. A simple way to learn about your class is to have every student fill out a note card at the beginning of the year with their name, background, reasons that they’re taking your class, as well as anything else you may wish to know about them.  Include an open-ended question like “What else would you like your instructor to know about you?” This will still give students a chance to communicate with you and let you know more about what they are looking for.


  • Since part of the challenge with quiet students is getting to know them and their needs as a student, if your class size allows it, consider asking everyone in class to drop by your office hours at the beginning of the semester. This gives you an opportunity to ask about their interests and relevant background; knowing the makeup of the classroom in this way is always helpful for class preparation.


  • Try to avoid calling on quiet students when they aren’t expecting it, even in a well-intentioned effort to hear their input. If you have students who are quiet because they are shy or unused to speaking in front of others, forcing them to speak extemporaneously will probably only reinforce their discomfort.


  • If you do establish a policy of calling on students unprompted, make sure to do so only after 1) giving fair warning that this will happen and 2) giving students a chance to think and write about their responses before they are asked to share them with the class.  You may give all students 2 minutes to consider a prompt or tackle a problem before calling on someone to share their answer.  You may even give them a chance to discuss their answer with a neighbor before asking anyone to speak to the whole class. These techniques allow all students, and particularly the quieter ones, to gather and consider their thoughts before being put on the spot.


  • Calling on students after giving time to write and even discuss answers with neighbors can work particularly well if you ask questions that are don’t require a strict right or wrong answer. If the question is sufficiently broad, you can incorporate the wide variety of answers into something productive for the whole class. The benefit for your quiet students is that it introduces a positive environment where all responses are taken seriously and drawn into the main theme of the class. If a student’s answer does need some correction, make sure to include positive feedback as well; the main point is for your students to see that there should be nothing to fear in venturing their opinion.


  • Finally, a good way to ensure that you are hearing the thoughts of your quietest students is through writing assignments. Whether reacting to the reading before class or reflecting on the discussion after class; short, low-stakes writing assignments allow quiet students time to gather their thoughts and formulate their answers away from the pressure of the classroom, and allow the instructor insight into those students’ thoughts and progress in the course.


Students are quiet for all kinds of reasons, from their personalities to their educational or cultural backgrounds. Your job is not to change them into talkative people, but to build a classroom environment conducive to the learning of all students.

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