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You are well prepared with a good set of prompts to start a lively discussion in class. The class starts and you begin by asking the students “What is the key takeaway of the reading assigned for today?” The room is filled with awkward silence: 5 seconds, 10 seconds, 20 seconds . . .

Sound familiar? This has happened to many of us. We tend to consider this silence as an indication that students don’t want to talk or they feel bored. We then quickly adopt other strategies to end the awkward silence. Instead, we should take some time to reflect and understand the reason for this silence.

Questions such as “What is the key takeaway of the reading assigned for today?” or “What is the difference between a gene and an allele?” are questions to which there is one correct answer, which is not a great type of question for starting a discussion.  Furthermore, such questions can be threatening to students as they send out a message that you as an instructor know the answer and you expect the students to have already known the answer by now. This might put the student’s self-confidence at risk as nobody wants to get embarrassed in front of the class by giving a wrong answer.

If your goal is to start a discussion, try the following strategies instead:

[1] Ask questions that are less threatening. When you want to warm students up to discussion or surface a variety of viewpoints, ask students to talk about their experience with a particular subject. [2] When teaching a concept or theory, ask students for examples illustrating the concept rather than asking them to define the concept [3] Use a chalkboard/whiteboard / Poll Everywhere to keep track of student responses. This will send out a strong message that you are going to privilege student voices in the discussion, rather than just looking for confirmation of what you were going to tell them anyway.

Are you asking the right questions? Answering this for yourself will help you better understand both your students and the silence.


[1]The Sound of Silence Can Be Deafening and the Questions You Ask Your Students Can Provoke It by Howard Aldrich, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, National Teaching and Learning Forum, Volume 2, Number 2, February 2018 [http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/journal/10.1002/(ISSN)2166-3327]

[2] When students don’t answer a question, what does the awkward silence mean? By Paul T. Corrigan, May 28, 2015, Teaching and Learning in Higher Ed. [when-students-dont-answer-a-question-what-does-the-awkward-silence-mean/]

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