How professors and students can end the awkward silence in class discussion

If you still haven't talked in class, it’s not too late

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Katherine Firsching is a Life Columnist for The Cavalier Daily.

Emma Klein | Cavalier Daily

We’ve all been there — you’re sitting in class, the professor asks a question and you know you know the answer. You want to raise your hand, but it’s already halfway through the semester, and you haven’t spoken up in the class before. You keep your hand down. 

Students are creatures of habit, and we abide by certain behavioral codes that are unspoken yet collectively understood. For example, everyone knows you have roughly three class periods at the beginning of the semester to establish where you will be sitting for the rest of the semester. If you walk into class on Nov. 23 to find that Sally Shellfish has moved from her top right quadrant of the room into your designated back left quadrant, you may wonder if she is right in the head or if something terribly wrong happened to her desk. I’ve noticed throughout my three years at the University that the same seems to go for talking in class.

Before I came to college, someone told me, “Always raise your hand on the first day of class, even if you have nothing important to say. You need to establish yourself as a talker, or else it will be really awkward to participate as the semester moves forward.” While this advice doesn’t necessarily apply to big lectures, I’ve found it alarmingly true in smaller, more discussion-based classes. By about the third week of school, everyone knows which students are the “talkers” and which students prefer to sit back, take notes and enjoy the ride. The problem arises when the “talkers” don’t talk or have over-talked for the period, leading to incredibly awkward silences or the dreaded, “Why don’t we hear from someone who hasn’t talked today.” 

Chirp. Chirp. Chirp.

Though I typically abide by the advice to talk the first day of class in hopes of avoiding feeling like a conversation stranger later on, I’ve realized that inevitably, some classes generate much more participation than others. Why?

Earlier this week, I attended a speaker series on finding a job in the advertising and marketing world with the president of brand solutions at the Dentsu Aegis Network, Matt Seiler. The group of attendees was about the same size as a smaller class, 15-20 students, and the room wasn’t too big either — everyone was seated as far away from the next person as possible, with back rows and aisle seats as the fan favorites, of course. 

As soon as Seiler introduced himself, he said, “We have an intimate group, so I want this to be a conversation. Everyone think of a question. Nobody is leaving this room without talking.” He began by asking us to raise our hands if we had previous internship experience in the advertising and marketing world, then he cold-called on us to share what we did or didn’t like about the job. This loosened the room a bit, and when he asked if anyone had a question for him, he got a taker, and another, and another. 

About halfway through the session, he pointed at a section of the room, saying, “You guys haven’t talked. Ask me a question.” And ask they did. Nobody left the room without talking, and everyone walked away with something. 

I don’t mind talking in front of crowds, but I was astounded to see an entire room of students participate — it’s never happened before in any of my classes. Then I got to thinking, and I had a bit of a revelation — we’re all University students. We’re all smart because we got here, and we all have something important to say. Sometimes, we just need someone to prompt us to say it, and then we’ll say a lot more. It’s the first-day-of-class effect.

Though I believe it’s a student’s responsibility to volunteer without being prompted, I do think there are certain things a professor can do to create the type of classroom environment where students genuinely want to participate. Media Studies Prof. William Little has this down to a science, as there are always hands flying in his film studies course, Shooting the Western. 

I’ve been in Little’s class for about half a semester now, and I’m astounded at how “un-awkward” of a discussion-based class he leads — not once has he been standing at the front of the room, grasping for people to participate. Teaching is an art form that I’m sure has many layers unseen to the student eye, but I’ve pin-pointed three reasons why I think Little’s class is an anomaly in the current college landscape. 

First, he made an effort to learn everyone’s name within the first few classes. While this is unreasonable for a larger, lecture style class, in a seminar with 30 students, the recognition goes a long way. There is nothing more discouraging than raising your hand and being called-on in week five, accompanied by the line, “Yes, and what’s your name again?” By knowing his students’ names, Little makes the classroom closer, and not having to worry about an awkward introduction part way through the semester encourages students to participate. 

Second, he really listens to what his students say, and he draws value out of their comments, even if he has a differing opinion. After a student participates, he reaffirms them with statements like, “That was well said,” or, “Great use of the reading,” and he spends time digging around their comment before moving on to the next. I once had a professor who said “Mm-hmm, mm-hmm, anyone else?” after anything anybody said. The class gave up participating.

Third, Little remembers what his students say, whether it be something someone mentioned a minute ago or a few weeks ago. For example, I might make a comment that reminds him of a great point Jackie made last class, or a great point John made in his post, and he’ll reference their work on the spot, making our thoughts and opinions feel important. He cares, so we care and it’s rewarding to participate. 

Unfortunately, people who can command a room of students like Seiler and Little are few and far between, and I can only hope that more professors take notes on their teaching styles. Until then, we as students should realize that no matter what point we’re at in the semester, it’s never too late to talk, and teachers and classmates will ultimately appreciate contribution to discussion. Even if it’s well after the first day of class and even if you haven’t established yourself as a “talker,” remember we all have something valuable to say. Down with the crickets, up with the hands. 

Katherine Firsching is a Life Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at life@cavalierdaily.com

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