Student Engagement

Dialogue Defibrillators: Jump-Start Classroom Discussions!

Here are eight remedies for classroom participation issues like fuzzy questions, introverted students, lack of focus, social threat, boredom, sleepiness, cognitive load, and wait time.

August 10, 2016

During a 12th-grade English discussion years ago, I asked a question that nobody answered. Wanting students to do more heavy academic lifting, I decided to wait until someone spoke before saying another word. A minute crept by. The class fidgeted while I waited. Ninety tense seconds passed. Students' faces registered confusion and frustration at my brinkmanship. At the two-minute mark, I continued to wait. . .

8 Issues and Remedies

We've all experienced whole-class discussions where students don't play along. You've begged, "Anybody? Bueller? Bueller?" The paragraphs below unpack why academic discussions go quiet and what to do about it.

1. Fuzzy Questions

Sometimes students don't respond to a prompt because it's either too complex, ill-structured, or inaudible. The trick is to teach kids the art of questioning the questioner.

To begin, I describe all the things I don't understand:

  • Why do electrons change behaviors when they are observed?
  • If two husbands pass away, which life partner do you spend time with in heaven?
  • Why is the plot of Game of Thrones such a chore?

Nobody, I say, is expected to know everything. So here are ways to respond to fuzzy questions:

"Would you please. . .
. . . state the question in a different way?"
. . . break that question into parts?"
. . . give me an example?"
. . . repeat the question more slowly?"

If they comprehend the question, but their answer is tentative, I suggest that they say:

  • "Let me answer the part that I know."
  • "Would you please come back to me after I've given the question more thought?"
  • "May I phone a friend (receive peer help)?"

2. High Percentage of Introverts

There’s a 25-minute Psychology Today test that determines if students in your class are introverts or extroverts. If your students are mostly introverts, then avoid cold-call methods like the popsicle stick protocol. Because introverts appreciate more time to think through the question before answering, direct students to "sneeze write" about what they heard you say or read (PDF). Asking early classes to fake sneeze when they finish their written reflections will wake everyone up during the ensuing hilarity.

3. Lack of Focus

Engaging in social media conversations can distract students, even after they've put their phones away. However, a recent study revealed that focusing on nine deep breaths improves the attention of individuals obsessed with their last Instagram post. Additionally, watching a grassy rooftop (or a picture of one) for 40 seconds boosts concentration and reduces mental errors.

4. Social Threat

To preserve social status among unfamiliar peers, some students remain guarded. The remedy, developing trust, begins with the teacher: "Even one supportive relationship with an adult at school can have significant positive effects on a student’s school functioning" (PDF). According to Dr. Megan Tschannen, trustworthy people manifest the following traits:

  • Benevolence: Showing appreciation and being fair
  • Honesty: Following through on promises and owning up to mistakes
  • Openness: Making yourself available and letting others make decisions
  • Reliability: Meeting obligations and being a can-do problem solver
  • Competence: Being professionally capable

Talk about and model trustworthiness in class.

5. Boredom

When learners find the class topic tedious, interrupt the discussion with surprise, movement, an academic game or problem, or partner work to enhance interest. Sometimes, a little more structure can transform a discussion from "blah" to "aha." Ask students to write an answer to your oral prompt and then share the reflection with a peer. Every time an idea is voiced, the partner has to complete this phrase: "I heard you say that. . . "

Teachers telegraph disinterest or engagement; the latter is predicated on the instructor genuinely listening. Chambering your next question while students talk unmistakably conveys disinterest.

Celebrate contributions. One time, I telephoned the mother of an at-risk learner to describe how her son made an astute point during class. "Someone that profound is going to experience a lot of success in college," I said. There was crying on the other end of the line, and I followed suit. During class talks for the remainder of the semester, the boy's eyes sparkled.

6. Sleepiness

Students sleeping on their faces during class discussions is not uncommon. Find several tactics in my post about keeping students awake.

7. Cognitive Load

Ask a child to multiply 47 x 47. Her eyes will shift more rapidly and squint -- an indicator that cognitive load is about to make the student tune out. Fortunately, brain breaks can relieve cognitive load. A study of third-grade students demonstrated that subject-related brain breaks employing "moderate amounts of movement achieved the best results in terms of combined enjoyment and refocus time."

8. Wait Time

Wait time is a specific amount of silence that elapses between an instructor asking a question and a student answering. It also includes the time between a student's answer and the teacher's response. Good things happen after a three-second pause, including increased achievement and more questions posed by students. There is another type of wait time to consider. According to Robert Stahl's research, instructors interrupt when a student’s pause in the middle of an answer exceeds point-five seconds. Stahl recommends always waiting for students to finish a thought.

Minimize Everyone's Performance Anxiety

I find that distributing participation points during discussions changes students' motivation to contribute. Moreover, my own multitasking skills are not up for the simultaneous challenges of:

  • Tallying contributors
  • Introducing rich prompts
  • Refocusing the discussion
  • Listening with as much concentration as my niece at a Taylor Swift concert

You might be interested to know what happened to that silent 12th-grade class mentioned at the beginning. After three minutes, I broke the silence: "Why didn't anyone answer the question?" The students reported that the prompt was unclear and that their intimidation grew as time passed. Robert Stahl's research reinforces their interpretation: When accompanied by fuzzy prompts, extended wait time ratchets up anxiety and leads to "no response at all."

How do you jump-start classroom discussions?

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