Getting the Quiet Class to Talk

The Problem

I’ve got one class that just doesn’t want to talk.  They’re great students and they all focus when I’m talking.  I think main reason they don’t want to talk is they don’t want to look like “know-it-alls” in front of each other, and so they won’t answer when they know the answer, and they’re even less likely to answer when they don’t know the answer.  Especially during white-boarding sessions, students just don’t want to talk.

My (Failed) Attempts to Fix the Problem

I’ve tried many different things to get them to start talking:

  • White-boarding sessions
  • The mistake game during white-boarding sessions (I was really excited about this one and it turned out to be a super-flop with this group… worked really well in Precalculus, however!)
  • That extra-long awkward silence after asking a question
  • The website–I had them answer and ask questions by all typing into the “chatroom”
  • I also had a day where they weren’t allowed to talk: they had to type into
  • I’ve had them “think-pair-share” (write something down individually, share in groups/pairs, then share to the whole class)

And yet, it still feels like I’m sitting there waiting for them to discuss and share what I’m pretty sure they know.  Maybe they’re just not creative and don’t have any ideas worth sharing (yeah, right!).  Or maybe I’m not giving very good leading questions and too often I’m asking the “can you read my mind?” questions (much more likely).  But often times I’m asking questions like “what did you notice?” or “what did you find interesting?”.

The Setup

So recently I decided I would “light a fire” under them and force them to talk.  These are all great students who cared about their grades, so I let them do a white-boarding session where they shared the results of a mini-lab where they played around with colliding carts, changing the mass around and using a stopwatch and meter-stick to find velocity.  I never once gave them the word “momentum”–I let them figure out that’s what they were finding and observing.  They worked on their whiteboards for a whole class period (50 minutes) on Friday.  As they were working, I moved from group to group dropping hints and asking directive questions, but never addressing the class as a whole.  Many groups were making really good progress, but I knew they could go so much faster if they could share what each individual group discovered to the whole group.

The Fire Under Their… You Know

So when they came back to school the following Monday, we started a white-boarding session, but I told them two things that changed the whole game.

  1. Each student had to make at least one comment about their board and/or ask a question of another group.
  2. There was going to be a quiz following the white-boarding session.

I pointed out that the solutions to the quiz could be found throughout everyone’s whiteboards, though through understanding.  I.E. The questions were not going to be of the form “what was on Bobby’s whiteboard in the top right corner” but instead would require the students to understand what each axis and variable represented in each of the groups.  Here is the quiz to give you an idea of what I had hoped students would learn:

One of the things I found important that I hope is represented in the quiz above is how heavily I relied on their experiences (see #70 and 80).  The questions were also very open ended, so students could add more math as they felt necessary.

Another Attempt

More recently, I’ve heard a little about this “I notice, I wonder” way of getting students to communicate and open up in class, and so I just recently tried that and was pleasantly surprised by the results when using this collision simulator. Disclaimer: I haven’t read very much about it, so I know very little beyond asking the students to finish the sentence “I notice…” after they’ve seen a phenomenon.  However, it does remind me of how important vocabulary is when helping students think divergently (I just had to add that word to the web browser spell-check dictionary?!) or when getting students to do really anything.  I did require my students to first write down the “I notice” sentence and share that with the class.  Afterwards, they moved on to the “I wonder” and I required them to write something down first, which they then shared in small groups, along with how they attempted to answer the question through the simulator.

And yes, I realize that part of the problem may be that I’m trying to teach a Physics class using Modeling even though I’ve never had a workshop on it (this was strongly discouraged by a few other experienced teacher/modelers… oops).  I feel like I’m getting better each new unit I do, and my students are getting better at the same process, but talking in groups is essential for modeling, so I’ve got to figure out a way for them to talk more!

My Request

So how do you get your quiet classes to talk?  What other strategies or suggestions might you have to help me?  I’m really willing to try anything crazy (well, offering candy only goes so far with seniors…).

Oh, and why do I have #70, 80, 90, and 100 on the quiz, instead of #1, 2, 3, and 4?  See this post (original idea is from this guy.)



Filed under Teaching

3 responses to “Getting the Quiet Class to Talk

  1. A friend of mine took over a very quiet class last year, where nobody would speak up in class. After a few classes of unsuccessfully trying to get some life out of the students, he passed out exit slips for the students to fill-out before leaving class to get feedback from them and give the students a chance to ask questions they had. When he got his slips back, he was really surprised to find out that the students actually had a lot of questions. So he tried passing out slips again, but this time he asked them on the exit slip why they wouldn’t speak up in class. It turned out most students in the class wouldn’t speak up because they were afraid they would look dumb or that the other students would make fun of them. I don’t know how he approached the problem from there, but at least then he knew why they weren’t talking.

    • Hmm, that’s a good idea: I’m assuming I know why these students won’t talk, but I should give them a chance to tell me why. At the very least, exit slips would allow me to ask the questions they might have if I go that route. Thanks for the idea!

  2. I’ve been playing around with different ways of getting a quiet class to talk. One of the things that I’m trying that has decent success is grouping. I am putting kids together that seem comfortable with sharing ideas. The result is pretty good so far. When they are engaged in mathematical discourse in their groups, they are definitely talking — a lot. It’s encouraging to see/hear. However, I am still running into the problem of silence when it comes time for consolidation and I’m trying to pull responses from them. I need to try a few new things for those moments.

    Thanks for sharing this post!

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