How to Increase Participation by Asking Better Questions
Framing questions the right way—and scaffolding the right kinds of responses—can help teachers avoid blank stares and awkward silences.
What do you do when your question is met with blank stares? In “When You Get Nothing But Crickets,” Jennifer Gonzalez of Cult of Pedagogy shares a few ways to avoid those long, awkward silences after you pose a question.
First, determine why you are not getting any responses. Gonzalez says it boils down to one issue: “Getting the silent treatment from a group you’re speaking to happens most of the time for one basic reason: People don’t want to look stupid.” They may be intimidated by the person asking the question—that’s often you—or they may not want to risk exposing their ignorance to that “one super popular kid or a person who is not particularly nice to her peers.”
Peer pressure doesn’t just make kids do risky things; it also makes them reluctant to take the kind of risks we actually want them to attempt. If you want to make it easier for students to be brave, consider your question framing and try to make your questions direct and proportional to the time students have to answer. “For example, if you ask, ‘What is your favorite song?’ some people will rack their brains trying to think of a song they like more than any other, THE song that totally defines them as a person,” Gonzalez writes. “But if you just ask them to think of a song they really like, that’s much easier.”
Another possible solution? Set up your question so the audience has clear expectations. They need to know what you are asking, but also who you are asking and in what form they are expected to respond, Gonzalez says. For example, instead of asking “Who can explain the plot?” you could say, “In a few minutes, I’m going to ask someone to identify and describe the story’s main conflict.” Set expectations and give students time to consider their answer before directing a specific question to an individual. “What I want you to do first is think quietly about your answer. Then I’m going to ask for three volunteers to share their answer with the group.”
Ask for a written response from everyone before calling on an individual student or a group of students to share; you’re likely to get deeper, more thoughtful responses—and kids will be more confident and prepared to face their peers. Or you can try the classic “Think-pair-share” exercise where students can collaborate on responses before sharing with the larger class.
To avoid blank stares when asking for confirmation of comprehension, look for alternatives to the old standby, “Does that make sense?”—students may hesitate to acknowledge that they don’t understand in front of their peers. “Instead, give participants tools to let you know when they are confused,” Gonzalez writes. “You could ask everyone to give you a thumbs-up or thumbs-down signal to indicate whether they’re getting what you’re saying or hold up colored response cards that can serve as answers to a multiple-choice question.”