Monday, January 20, 2014

Silence: When Students Don’t Answer your Question

You pose a question to your class, and no one responds. What next? In 2009, Michael Hunter Schwartz offered the best answer at the Institute for Law Teaching website. Here it is.

Before class, you carefully crafted your question, thinking through all of the possible responses so that you can maximize student learning. Now, you're in class. You unleash the question, and . . . silence. You can hear the crickets chirping. No one raises her hand to take the wonderful bait you crafted. Now what?! Should you verbally rewrite your question? Should you step in and answer the question yourself?

Wait. If you modify your question, your students might now feel they have two questions to answer and may be even more confused. Trust your students. The longer you wait, the more they will be able to think through the analysis. And, after all, few lawyers regularly tackle challenging problems in ten or fifteen seconds. If you just wait, a student will step in and fill the silence.

But, what if there's still no response and now it has been a minute? Let your students discuss the question with their peers for a minute or two and then try your question again. Listen to their discussions; you may learn that your question was confusing in some way you didn't anticipate. We suspect you will, instead, hear lots of students engaging in analysis.

Good teachers know they do not need to be talking for their students to be learning. Your students' extra thinking and discussing time will produce more widespread learning than either a verbal re-write or a professor answer.


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When I'm talking, I'm concerned that my students may not be learning. And so I am quiet enough to let them talk (or try to be).

And, if you're met with silence too often, think about doing short writing exercises at the start of class or pairing students in small groups before asking them to announce their views to the whole class. It will make them more comfortable and/or allow them to refresh their memories about topics that may interest the professor a great deal but may not engage the students int he same way.

Posted by: Smarts | Jan 21, 2014 9:38:44 AM

What's wrong with cold calling in that situation?

Posted by: Otto stockmeyer | Jan 21, 2014 6:03:36 AM

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