Getting students to speak

by Chris Bertram on September 25, 2007

Here we are, at least in this part of the world, at the beginning of a new academic year. Teachers everywhere are facing the prospect of groups of sullen silent students, or groups composed of the cowed majority plus one ignorant loudmouth who you can’t shut up. And then there’s the group which works absolutely fine but when those ten file out, and another ten sit down, and you do exactly the same thing but nothing happens, long silences, etc. And then there’s the temptation to overcompensate and turn those seminar groups into a mini-lecture where _you_ do all the talking. I’ve just been discussing these problems with a friend and suggested I try an open thread on the subject here at CT.

Teachers, students: what are your hints and tips for small group teaching? What works and what doesn’t? What’s the optimal size? Do sex ratios in groups make a difference to the dynamic? And what are the other pathologies that I haven’t even mentioned?

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09.26.07 at 12:21 pm



ben saunders 09.25.07 at 10:17 am

My experience of larger seminars, as either student or teacher, is rather limited, but it seems a student presentation is often one way to kick things off. I suppose it depends how the seminar fits into the wider course though and how much work students are expected to do for it.

If the problem is ensuring everyone’s done reading or preparation then a few techniques I have heard of (but never needed to use) include i) requiring everyone to submit a very short report (few hundred words), ii) going round the class and asking everyone individually whether they’ve done the reading (apparently works) or iii) perhaps getting everyone to prepare a short presentation and randomly selecting who should actually give theirs…


wissen 09.25.07 at 10:20 am

Small group work on set questions. Then students come back to a roundtable discussion. Pool their best answers. Invite debate on them. This often (but not always) works. My experience is that year on year, 18 year old students know increasingly less about debating and are less and less inclined to take part in a debate. But then they now have their student debt to think about, and the Holy Grail of a 2:1 that may allow them to pay it back. If tutorials don’t count towards this, why should they bother?


novakant 09.25.07 at 10:32 am

If we’re only talking about ten people, why not randomly pick one and ask them what they think, like in school? This will ensure that next time around everybody has at least read the text, which will in turn probably cut down on the silence. It might seem a bit bossy or cruel to shy students, but speaking in public is one thing one should learn at uni and in such a small group it shouldn’t be all that scary.*

What was scary was when our professor asked people at random to read a few of the humongous sentences from the Phenomenology of Spirit in front of a group of around 50 people, instantly interrupting you when you got the emphasis wrong on one of the many subordinate clauses and publicly chastising you for not having comprehended Hegel’s train of thought. I would not recommend doing this, as it was indeed cruel,even though on a good day it could lead to interesting discussions.

* I used to be a very shy and occasionally lazy student, but in retrospect I think I would have preferred this method to the long and uncomfortable silences you mentioned.


aaron_m 09.25.07 at 10:35 am

Have students prepare written answers to one of the discussion questions you will take up in the seminar. Shy students are more confident about jumping into the discussion for the issue/question they have specifically prepared for. This is also a big help with students that have another language than that which the seminars are given in as their first language.

WAIT! Get comfortable with long silent pauses. Be quite and wait for the students to talk. The is a battle of the wills the teacher is well placed to win.

WAIT! Allow students to keep talking and debating amongst themselves even if it appears that they are not getting to the heart of the issue. I usually stop myself from interrupting on at least the first two occasions I get the impulse to do so. Often I am pleasantly surprised that when students do eventually get to an important discussion. They seem to learn much more if they get to the heart of the issue and then I can simply explain to them why what they are talking about is important.

Sex ratio seems to make a difference. When the class is dominated by women they also dominate the discussion and visa versa. In both cases it is sometimes necessary to help the minority sex into the discussion.

Size matters, around 10 is a good seminar size.

Be funny and energetic, or at least try. I usually find that students are kind of like an audience at a wedding listening to a toast. They really want you to succeed at being entertaining, so you just need to avoid making a complete ass of yourself in the process. Given the usual lack of alcohol during seminars this should be easier than at a wedding.


Harald Korneliussen 09.25.07 at 10:35 am


Jon Smith 09.25.07 at 10:36 am

I was taking a first year course on Kant many years ago and the seminar was virtually silent. Almost the same group of people were very talkative in the Philosophy of Religion seminar. One reason was that Kant is really hard and most people didn’t understand it or really engage with the required reading. Another was that the Kant seminar was quite early and philosophy students are not at their best in the morning. A third was that the lecturer was a bit intellectually intimidating.

The lecturer decided to force us to do the reading by telling us we each had to come with a list of questions about things we were unclear about or didn’t understand. It didn’t work because few people did it, instead just hoping the others would bail them out.

I’ve been teaching for several years now and my seminars are almost all quite bubbly these days. My tips are:

1) Get the students to feel comfortable around each other. They are nervous but will feel much better if they know each other a bit. Take them for coffee and talk about normal stuff.

2) Many students have never spoken in front of a group. They were quiet at school and it just takes practice for them to get used to it. Find a way to get them to talk about easy stuff first without judgement. Make them take a position and then defend it (easy with ethics).

3) Put them in smaller groups and leave the room for a bit. You might be the problem. I was always very talkative in tutorials with three or four but much less confident in larger groups.

4) Strange as it may seem, many students just don’t get the point of the seminar. Make it clear that it’s for them to clarify their understanding and they have to be proactive. If no-one is saying anything, bite the bullet and go back to the start. Ask what they don’t understand and if it’s everything start again. You’ll soon find something they disagree with. The discussion won’t be very edifying for you but they will learn something.

In my view all students should go on training before they start courses to build confidence and get used to speaking in front of other people. I can always dream.


Marc Mulholland 09.25.07 at 10:40 am

Ask everyone, by name, at least once to answer a question. I find that they’re usually positively keen to say something as long as (a) the question is reasonably open-ended, and , preferably, (b) it relates to some text plonked in front of them.


a diddy 09.25.07 at 11:13 am

Start out with easily answered questions. Ask them about their family or their experiences just to get them talking and then switch to more abstract questions.


Phil 09.25.07 at 11:30 am

Give students some time to think before answering, as said above silence is not necessarily a bad thing. Try and give them questions that they can see the significance of. I have had far too many seminars where we’ve been told in groups talk about… – WHY? Although I have done this myself as an EFL teacher where I have not explained the importance of a task properly. Try and build a good rapport so the students feel more comfortable and you better understand what they want. This is easier said than done if you don’t see a group very often. Try and get everyone to contribute and don’t rely on the same students every time.


fred lapides 09.25.07 at 11:45 am

sat in as non-registered student in grad seminar offered by a distinguished scholar/poet. Each student had to prepare a paper to read, one student per week. At end of presentation, first time out, teacher asked if any comments or questions. No response. Asked 3 times. No response. teacher closed his brief case and said: well if no one has anything to say there is no sense in our staying here. See you next week. Following week, lots of questions and comments.


matt w 09.25.07 at 11:47 am

Avoid the impulse to lecture at them if they are quiet at first. I’ve found (at least with American students) that lecturing gives them the expectation that the material will just be spoon fed to them and will kill discussion.

As others have said, it’s good to get them talking about relatively easy material at first: ask them questions that are open-ended or have fairly apparent right answers. Also, it’s best not to be too critical of students who raise ill-formed or bad points at first as this can have a chilling effect on the whole group. Once you get them comfortable and more confident you can be more critical of what they say.

I teach sections of around 20 students which tends to be a bit on the big side and doesn’t lend itself to everyone talking. 10 is probably optimal.


Srini Sitaraman 09.25.07 at 12:12 pm

I am teaching a section on International Human Rights–First Year Seminar–with 18 students. The first few weeks of the class I had difficulty getting students to open up, largely because they were shy and also they were gauging their friends, now they have started opening up a bit. But, I importantly I make two students present every week on the readings and also make them write a 4-5 page readings summary and reactions, which seems to work. I also notice that discussions vary as a function of the degree of difficulty of the subject matter.


anomie 09.25.07 at 12:16 pm

I am a grad student. In most of the seminars I’ve been in, many of the students will animatedly discuss the material–before class, while waiting for the professor to show up; during breaks, after the professor leaves. The prof shows up, gets us all quiet, then asks us to talk.

Don’t do that.


Wallenstein 09.25.07 at 12:35 pm

I was fortunate (!) to enjoy several of Chris’s political philosophy seminars as an undergraduate at Bristol a few years ago.

Certainly among my cohort the single biggest obstacle (IMO) to participation was simply lack of preparation by the students.

The pre-reading was skimmed at best, and most wouldn’t read beyond the set passage for that session.

The long silences tended to be people sitting there saying to themselves “Sh*t, I hope I don’t get asked… I haven’t the first clue what this is about”.

Not sure what the answer is – perhaps providing a list of specific questions on each text to aid reading? I think many students in Philosophy Depts – particularly those who choose it as a subsidiary module – have vastly different ideas regarding the nature of “philosophical / political” study.

One other thing to consider is the nature of the course – by Week 3-4 most students will (with luck) have chosen the topic for the essay for a given module. If the seminars in Weeks 6-7 don’t relate to the essay, there is (arguably) little point in spending time preparing for a seminar, when one could be hitting the books for the essay.

Of course, it could have been that we were just scared of Prof Bertram ;-)


duncan 09.25.07 at 1:00 pm

Re #10. If anyone did that where I teach the students would learn that keeping silent got you out of class. They would never speak.


Miranda 09.25.07 at 1:01 pm

Here are all my tricks–

1–have a short writing assignment based on the reading

2. make them formulate discussion questions at the beginning of class

3. make them freewrite for 10 minutes on a significant passage at the beginning of class, then discuss responses

4. Circle within the circle. Divide the class into two groups. One must sit in the middle and discuss the reading; the other surrounds it and evaluates the discussion. Then the groups switch. This works particularly well if you split the group into talkers and non-talkers. You, of course, say nothing. The entire burden of the discussion is on them.

5. Talking ball. You have a tennis ball. You throw it into the group. Only the person who has the ball can talk and they get to choose who they throw it to next. You don’t talk at all.

Good luck!



c.l. ball 09.25.07 at 1:07 pm

I have tried

* assigning papers to a 3rd to 1/2 the class which will be discussed that week
* handing out discussion questions in advance of the class
* randomly calling on students
* telling students that their default participation grade will be a D if they fail to participate

None of these has worked very well either for seminars ranging from 8 to 25 attending students, or larger courses.

What does work well is starting out with questions virtually the first day of class, as Matt W suggests. I had an 80+ lecture class that was participating well when I began the first lecture by simply asking “Why did the US go to war with Iraq?” At least 20 people spoke up.

But as someone else pointed out, lack of preparation is the biggest problem.


Phil 09.25.07 at 1:22 pm

I’ve just finished an MA and I was surprised at how bad most of the students were at presenting and how the professors didn’t seem to care. For the worst ones people would just read through pages of notes word for word, try and discourage this and hopefully the students will become more confident.


stostosto 09.25.07 at 1:35 pm

Many good ideas. I especially like the one about taking the students out for a cup of coffee. (jon smith) #6 I’ll do that if I am ever going to teach again.

The technique I have personally practiced is aaron_m’s (and others’): Get comfortable with long silent pauses.

I never quite did get comfortable — but it does work. Eventually one student caves. Eventually. And the following ones come a bit quicker, once you have established your silence credibility.


robert the red 09.25.07 at 1:47 pm

When I was a professor (medical imaging), in journal club students were usually silent — except the selected victim — I mean, presenter. I then made a policy that each student had to come with at least one question about the paper every time, and I would go around the room and make them ask it if they hadn’t already spoken up. This worked fairly well, but wasn’t a panacea.


lindsey 09.25.07 at 1:54 pm

Get to know your students individually. Some of the shy students aren’t as afraid of each other as they are of the professor. There’s a good number of students who really are prepared and really do have a lot to contribute but they’re still too intimidated to speak if they don’t think they’re up to the level of the professor. Inviting them to office hours may work, but it may be more effective to have a required (casual) meeting with them early on just to form a bond. At least for me, I worried less about what the other students would think once I knew that the professor was on my side (less frightening overall). I realize that’s easier in a 10 person seminar than 20, and it requires a bigger time commitment than you may have. But once you’ve bonded with a student, they’ll be more motivated to contribute to your class.


jcasey 09.25.07 at 2:12 pm

I’ve also had a lot of success with very short (but graded) paper assignments (no more than 500 words). To do them students have to focus their minds on the kinds of questions or observations they might make during class. When these papers are due (students call it “thesis defense day”) discussions come very easily and they maintain a high level of clarity and focus.


robertdfeinman 09.25.07 at 4:12 pm

Why do you want students to speak? Do you want them to ask questions so that you can clarify your presentation? Do you want them to contribute additional information to the topic? Do you want them to express an opinion?

Once you have defined your objective then how to proceed should become clearer. If they are to provide information then they need to be assigned some preparatory work and made to understand that they will be called on to deliver it. If you want to get questions then you may need to do this using other techniques. Many people don’t want to appear dumb in public, so use of email or other non-public routes may be better.

Even having people hand in notes (anonymously, if necessary) at the beginning of the period might work better.

If you want people to express opinions, why? Do you want to develop debating skills, or do you want to get people to challenge each other’s beliefs? Is this useful?

If debating is the goal then perhaps a more formal arrangement would work. X gets five minutes to lay out their case (having prepared in advance) and then Y gets to rebut. Depending on the group dynamics this can continue or be opened to everyone after the initial round.


hermit greg 09.25.07 at 4:24 pm

Education researchers frequently recommend spreading responsibility. Pair students up or put them in groups to discuss the reading or topic, or to answer a question, or whatever before putting them on the spot in a class discussion. Also, wait: learn to appreciate silence as thinking.

Both are pretty universal recommendations regardless of class type: I currently work in K-12 professional development and recommend these more than anything else for fostering participation in classrooms. At the same time, one of the most interesting (in terms of class time) graduate seminars I ever had took advantage of both collaboration and silence.


Megan 09.25.07 at 5:00 pm

I was absolutely adamant that every student would speak in my classes, but since my affect was friendly and joke-y, they didn’t realize how serious I was. I did a lot of prep work on them the first day; making them all say their names and the names of everyone who’d said names before that. (It works fine because it becomes a cadence. You can do this to learn up to forty or so names at a time.) Then I drilled them, for minutes, on saying “I don’t know.” Out loud. I told them that was always an answer.

Then, with the answers in the paper in front of them, I’d go down every row, asking fact questions. Who was the author? Answer, next person, What does the title mean? Answer, next person. Don’t know? Next person, help your friend out. I’d get through a room of thirty people about three times in an hour. They relax, because they know when it is coming and because they see that the answers are in front of them. Attention is only on each person for twenty or thirty seconds at a time (at first).

The first week, this takes some coaxing and you don’t cover much. But it quickly becomes fluid and you can ask for opinions and more sophisticated readings. Pretty soon, everyone talks and they say they don’t know when they don’t. You can even question them out of order.


Kelly 09.25.07 at 5:30 pm

I did a couple of things…

The hardest thing, by far, was to let there be silence. I like to fill silence, but my last adviser made it very clear that if I didn’t, eventually someone else would. So the first class or two, I would chatter away if my students wouldn’t, and then I would declare “okay, from now on, you guys talk. I’ll respond to you, but I’m not going to dominate anymore. If you all want to sit in silence for 45 minutes, well… it’s your education money. I hope you’d rather spend it asking questions than just watching the clock tick.” I’ve never had to wait more than a few minutes for someone to break the ice. It helps, though, if students really do believe you when you tell them there are no stupid questions – I tend to illustrate that by talking about some of the stupider things I’ve said/done in classrooms.

Another thing my last adviser suggested was a 3×3 format – prepare three questions, with three followup questions each, based on the readings. This way, I’m at least prepared to talk about a variety of topics and sub-subjects.

Hmm, what else? Students had to write a reading journal-like assignment on each reading, just a few paragraphs, to hand in, as proof they had read it. The justification, other than “I am teacher and therefore God” was that reading is more than reading – it’s reading, writing, and discussion before you can truly understand something. Students were allowed to hand in artwork instead of journals, if that was their preferred medium – and I have lovely artwork on my walls, now, as a side benefit.

The other thing I do pretty obsessively is create playlists on my iPod, and always have music running at low level in the background. I try to make it suggestive to the topic; after a few weeks, someone catches on to what’s going on and it becomes a fun game for them. In classes I know I’ll be doing this, I also make it an assignment that every student send me, at some point over the quarter, a song they feel is related to the class/material – and the last class is their playlist, of which they receive a burned copy.


Grand Moff Texan 09.25.07 at 5:32 pm

Socratic method. Each of my students knows they may be called on for anything, so they have to cover everything. They found it a bit inflexible at first, so now I let them respond to each other once the question is answered.

I used to write outlines for lectures. Now, I just write questions. I like the challenge of “leading” the discussion in the direction I need it to go in order to cover all the material.


Andromeda 09.25.07 at 5:36 pm

Everything everyone said about wait time: ditto. Count to ten slowly in your head if you must — if you don’t, you will jump in after a second, because it will have seemed like forever.

Start the discussion by having everyone write something — their answer to a question, five questions on the homework, anything as long as it’s not *too* open-ended (you want them to be able to write it in a minute or two and not be overwhelmed). Best case, this reminds them they have things to talk about. Worst case, you *know* they have something to talk about so you can just call on someone (also should help the shy ones because they don’t have to think on their feet as much).

Don’t let your values dominate — students are very good at figuring out what the teacher wants to hear and not saying anything else. (And, of course, students are uncomfortable if they feel they will be graded down because their politics or other views differ from the teachers’.)

The single best thing I have found, though — if I say something like “raise your hand if you know the answer to X”, I get two hands and it’s the kids who always know everything. If I say, “Who knows the answer to X?” I get at least twice as many hands. How you phrase questions is key. Experiment.


yoyo 09.25.07 at 5:47 pm

In my philosophy class, half the time i didn’t participate because i didn’t do the reading. But half the time it was for another reason: often it seemed the answer to the prof’s question was completely obvious, and I didn’t feel like just regurgitating something so basic. I’d only feel like participating if someone else said something i thought was wrong. So maybe asking people outright instead of waiting for volunteers; in particular i am not sure allowing ‘i don’t know’ as an answer. i think it would be better to ask that people give an answer, even if it is wrong, because that encourages other people to think about if/why they agree/disagree.


iain 09.25.07 at 5:50 pm

As others have said, ensuring adequate preparation is key. Not telling the students in advance who will be called on to speak first helps a bit.

My preferred method: assign specific reading and some questions, even if only ‘what is it that this author wants to convince you of?’, ‘what is the author’s argument?’. Tell the students to write *short* answers. With luck, that makes them select the important material, and prevents interminable presentations in which the entire reading is summarised.

At the start, select a student by some obviously random method to present what they wrote. The point of the obvious randomness is to make sure that no one can afford not to prepare, even if they were called on first last week. If the student selected has nothing prepared, ask them to leave and mark them as absent. You should warn them that you’ll do this in the first class. Ask another student to respond by noting any differences in what they wrote. Announce to the class that you will say nothing for the first 20 minutes to half-an-hour. Stick to this. Sit to one side, so that they talk to each other, not to you.
After 20 mins or half-an-hour, unless discussion is rattling along just fine, summarise what’s been said, emphasising all the good things that have been said and minimising any criticism, while making sure that any awful errors go corrected. Try to set them off on what you think will be a productive new direction.
This intervention is hard to get right. You can kill the discussion completely. If they clam up at this point, divide them into smaller groups, give them a specific question to answer, and leave for 5-10 minutes while they work on it.

This works much less well in the class with one or two loud and dominant figures. It’s very hard to avoid a more interventionist style in that situation. It works much better with the ‘all silent’ group.


c.l. ball 09.25.07 at 6:07 pm

The very short paper idea — @ 500 words — seem good.

My worry on the small groups idea is that only one or two people in each small group will speak, and that the same people will then speak to the larger class. Also, I cannot listen to all the students in all the small groups — they might speak, but I wouldn’t know it.


hermit greg 09.25.07 at 6:18 pm

To respond to the actual questions: true randomness in forming groups can mitigate some sex role conflicts; so, too, can the assignation of set roles to group members.


Sue G-P 09.25.07 at 8:45 pm

Almost every suggestion made so far will work with some students, at some time. The trick is figuring out which one and when to use it.

As a community college faculty member, the primary thing that limits students participation is lack of preparation. Nonetheless my observation is that students will learn more if they find information for themselves and discuss its meaning with other students than if they sit and listen to lecture. My solution: select short pieces from the assigned readings (no more than 8 to 10 pages), and break students into randomly assigned groups of 4 or 5 (more or less does not work as well). They are given the task of mining the reading material for some factual information, and then once they have the facts, they are asked for opinions and evaluations that require actual discussion. Some students do read in advance and they often take leadership in the group. Shifting group membership each class period gives everyone a chance to interact with everyone else.


djw 09.25.07 at 11:17 pm

At the beginning of a discussion, ask a fairly broad, big, open-ended question. The best of these questions have the following characteristics: 1) They provide prompts and opportunities for the best students to answer in a sophisticated manner, but aren’t so intimidating that students with less confidence of analytic thinking skills can’t potentially answer them. 2) The potential range of answers to the question might direct class discussion toward a range of issues you were hoping to raise in discussion that day, and 3) The question should be difficult to answer, but not totally impossible to come up with something, for those who have not completed the reading.*

Then, rather than let the question just sit there, tell the students to write an answer, and give them five minutes. Let them use their books, and make sure not to frame it as a quiz, but collecte them at least occasionally and grade them on a credit/no credit basis (but dole out praise for really smart answers sparingly). Then, once the five minutes is up, begin the discussion. No one can credibly claim they’ve got nothing to say, since they’ve got a half-page in front of them that must say something.


aaron_m 09.25.07 at 11:32 pm


Do you actually collect papers that students have written in five minutes during class and read through them?

If the point is to create incentives for them to actually think and write something during the five minutes my reaction is ‘there adults furfuk’s sake.’ That sounds like too much baby sitting to me. If they don’t take the opportunity then to think of something to say on their own steam well…. Or is there some other benefit I am missing.


dale 09.25.07 at 11:41 pm

Take your group of 6 – 10 learners. Break them into smaller clusters. Give each cluster an index card with their assignment: for example, cluster 1 = “need more info”, cluster 2 = “conclusions”, cluster 3 = “recommendations.” Then present them with a brief problem to solve. The clusters get 2 or 3 minutes to brainstorm. Then they present their ideas. You can moderate the ideas and use them as a springboard for further discussion.

The keys are: 1) everyone gets assigned to a cluster; it’s usually people sitting next to each other. 2) they get their assignment in advance. This lets them focus and pay attention. 3) each group contributes. It’s fun to play with the makeup of the clusters. Boys/girls. Upper/Lower classmen. Whatever. It works beautifully with a strong moderator.

I have done this in a medical residency where no one wants to answer because they’re intimidated. The clusters were 1) more info, 2) diagnosis, and 3) recommendations. Sometimes the clusters were defined as 1) students, 2) interns, 3) junior/senior residents. The latter got the harder part (recommendations). It’s quite fun. Even the quiet participate, because everyone is talking during the initial challenge.


djw 09.26.07 at 12:23 am

I do, occasionally. Most days I tell them to just keep their writing with their notes, but I collect them once every other week or so, without announcing in advance when it will be done. It only takes a few minutes, and it actually benefits me by helping me understand what’s going on with the really quiet students between exams and major assignments–that is, are they completely lost, apathetic, shy, etc.

I’m sympathetic to your position, but at the end of the day I think all my students benefit from a good discussion environment, and frankly so do I, as it makes my job easier and far more pleasant. But beyond that, many of them may well be (very young) adults, but they’re adults who have often been socialized into passive learning. If I can jolt them out of it with something this simple, it’s worth it to me.


MissLaura 09.26.07 at 3:09 am

Start with open-ended questions that don’t take long to ask and don’t have necessarily right or wrong answers. The biggest discussion-killer I’ve ever seen was the teacher who asked beautifully-formulated, precise questions at least a paragraph long, and by the time she was done even I, who liked her personally, was enthusiastic about the class, and absorb things pretty quickly, would be sitting there with my mouth hanging open as I tried to recall where the question had started.

In addition to being comfortable with silence, be comfortable with tangents. Give your students a little time where it seems like they’re going off topic, to see if there’s a reason they’re going where they’re going, something you can tie back to the original thing.

If the silence really goes on, consider the possibility that the way you phrased your question made little sense to people not inside your mind. Try to rephrase. Even if it comes out more awkwardly, often it will stimulate something. Though I don’t know, that may be pity.


Carla 09.26.07 at 5:19 am

I have one professor in particular who is amazing at drawing out class discussion. At the end of each class, he distributes an assignment sheet where he lists the next week’s reading, and then in bold he writes: be prepared to discuss… followed by three or four questions on the reading. The first day of class he smiled at us kindly and said something along the lines of: “i know you all are brilliant but terribly modest, so i will help you out by calling on you to comment on the discussion questions, thus sparing you the anxiety of having to impose yourselves by raising your hand.” And we all thought: crap. But it was gently done, we all recognized it as being fair, and appreciated that it was not (explicitly) based on the assumption that we were a bunch of slackers.

But this professor also had an incredible way of eliciting participation even from those who had not done any reading. He would begin class by asking a question, loosely based on the readings, but which forced people to raise their hands. For example: “so for today we read about the role of intellectuals in society. how many of you agree with author x that intellectuals comprise a class in themselves, an autonomous social group? raise your hands. ok, how many agree with author y that intellectuals are bound by their class? raise your hands. ok, how many agree with author z that intellectuals are class-less?” Then he would turn to somebody and say, “you raised your hand for intellectuals as a class in themselves, why?” He would listen, nod, and then turn to another person who had raised their hand for the same view, and repeat the question. Usually what would happen is that people would disagree and begin to cut in. Soon you had supporters of author x debating with supporters of author y and supporters of author z anxious to interrupt. The question was centered around the basic theme of the reading, but so loosely stated that everyone, even those that hadn’t read, had an opinion.

I found this use of straw polls to be ingenious. Someone would make a comment and he would repeat it and say, “does everybody agree? is technology culturally neutral? raise your hand if you agree.” And then he would ask randomly selected people why they held the opinion that they did. the raising of hands was critical. otherwise, it would have been far too easy for a couple of people to dominate the discussion and everyone else to zone out. by asking people to raise their hands, he forced the entire class to engage with the discussion. There was no space for indifference, you had to have an opinion.

The discussions generated from this were so interesting that if you hadn’t done the reading for that week you were left kicking yourself because you lacked the familiarity with the reading to be able to participate fully. a bunch of us, not having read enough to decisively refute the people we were arguing with, vowed to be more prepared next time. And this is how this man managed to make everyone both read and participate.


aaron_m 09.26.07 at 8:38 am


OK. Maybe I will give it a try if I ever get the luxury again of long seminars.


Srini Sitaraman 09.26.07 at 12:06 pm

I generally don’t believe in this small clusters thing. The whole exercise seems cute and new-age. However, a lot of faculty and teaching administrators are a big fan of this method and they are pushing this mode of discussion generator aggressively in classrooms. This exercise might work well in certain settings with knowledgeable participants. Otherwise, it is a forced attempt to produce discussion where probably none exists.

My preference is for the traditional form of sitting around a table and sort of having a free exchange of ideas. But, I have come to realize that it would be difficult to expect that in an average undergrad class because many don’t do the readings ahead of time, they are not as committed about the subject matter as the instructor, and they are shy about expressing their views in front of their peers for being perceived as too geeky.


hermit greg 09.26.07 at 12:29 pm

Isn’t “Not being as committed about the subject matter as the instructor” more the definition of education than a legitimate reason to excuse students from discussion?


Elizabeth 09.26.07 at 3:36 pm

Some of us students show up to class having completed homework, and informed. In my own case, I plan to become a teacher, and I am painfully aware of how uncomfortable teachers feel when students never respond to or ask questions, or make comments. Because I tend to know answers, teachers develop a habit of looking at me. If no one answers after a while, sometimes I will, sometimes I won’t, depending on the body language I pick up from the teacher. Further, I make it a point to have a very expressive face. Teachers tend to focus on me if they are unsure whether or not students understand something they are trying to say. If I look confused, they know there is a good chance that some of the other students are also confused. I know at least two other students who are the same way. So believe me, some of us out there do try to help our teachers along! We appreciate that it is terribly unnerving to stand in front of so many people every day and speak with no prompting from students!


Jess 09.26.07 at 5:29 pm

I often start discussions by having one student read a short passage from our text and then asking the class to respond out loud—first by summarizing it, then by interpreting it. The advantage here is in breaking up the reading into manageable portions—a paragraph, perhaps even a sentence—instead of asking the students to address the entire argument or effect at once. I find that once students have their eyes on the page rather than on me or each other, they lose some of their shyness and come up with interesting ideas.

Another thought: don’t wait for students to raise their hands to ask them to speak. Look for other nonverbal cues—a confused expression, a rolling of the eyes, a nod of the head—and say, “Sarah, you look like you agree with Adam’s point,” or, “Robin, you look confused. Are we missing something?” It lets them know you’re paying attention.


Barry 09.26.07 at 11:16 pm

Anyone else here surprised and troubled by the purely improvisational (not in a good way) quality of these suggestions? They’re sensible and even creative, but is there no evidence-based knowledge about how to stimulate thinking, discussion and learning among small groups of (mostly) young adults? I’m beginning to teach at a university after decades in industry. I want to do a good job. Isn’t there something I should be reading? Are we really all just on our own, fumbling along and making it up as we go along? Please discuss. Anyone?


ben saunders 09.27.07 at 8:31 am

A quick suggestion on hand raising, since some have said don’t wait for it and others have pointed out students may be shy/not bother even if they know answers. How about, after one student advances a position, say something like ‘all those who (dis)agree raise your hands’ – and then pick someone whose hand isn’t raised to explain why not…


Another Damned Medievalist 09.27.07 at 12:49 pm

20% of my class grades are based on participation. For the surveys, at least, I give a series of questions that students are expected to answer for every primary source we read. They don’t have to turn them in, but they know that, if they are called on, they have to be able to respond — and I throw people out of class for the day and dock their grades if they can’t participate twice. These are super-simple: authorship, date, etc., plus three pieces of evidence the students found in the text OR three questions they had about the text (or a combination). I also make a point of reiterating why doing this makes for a successful discussion when discussions are particularly good.

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