In most courses the quiet students outnumber the talkative ones. And although some quiet students occasionally speak, there are others who make their way through the course silently. Quite appropriately, with publication of Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2012), a number of teachers have raised concerns about the challenges that active learning environments present to quiet students. Of equal concern but not regularly addressed are those talkative students who willingly contribute as often as teachers call on them. I’ve been thinking about both, not so much in terms of behavior-changing techniques but with regard to how teachers respond to each of these behaviors.
Starting with the quiet students, not speaking is an enigmatic behavior with multiple possible meanings. In a course, it may signal that the student is unprepared, uncertain about what to say, afraid of revealing ignorance, uninterested in the content, not ready to learn, or resistant to the teacher’s efforts to engage students. It’s also possible that the quiet student is deeply engaged, listening, processing, thinking, taking good notes, and wanting to prepare comments before making them. But here’s my concern: How often do teachers make negative judgments about silent behavior?
Assuming the worst about quiet students often leads to larger negative conclusions—that’s what research reports. Teachers and even classmates think quiet students are lazy, passive, disrespectful and not as smart as their talkative counterparts. Assumptions made about students affect how teachers act toward them. For example, there’s plenty of documentation that teachers pay less attention to quiet students and don’t offer them much positive reinforcement.
It’s not that quiet students are without blame. Some regularly come to class unprepared and don’t speak in an attempt to hide all they don’t know. Students can be physically in class but mentally on another planet. But silent behavior pretty much looks the same. It’s unreasonable to expect teachers to figure out why a student refrains from speaking. But it is reasonable to expect teachers to avoid automatic assumptions—foregone conclusions that favor those who talk over those who don’t.
Educators tend to assume that students should be talking and that doing so aids learning, and that’s why many teachers “encourage” quiet students to talk—they called on them and ask questions to ascertain whether they’re prepared, and this “participation” is graded. Talk is essential in some courses and for some students. Conversational French cannot be learned without talking. But if the course is math, history, biology, physics—actually, it’s a very long list—students can successfully learn much of the content taught in college without speaking.
But then there’s the reality of life in most professions, where the inability to speak up—when there’s a need, when called on, when working with others—has negative career consequences. Teachers should promote the development of important professional skills. So what’s the best way? Put pressure on those who are silent, even though they hate it and most of what they contribute only reinforces the negative conclusions drawn about those who speak reluctantly?
Behind the technique question lies a tougher one. Should teachers try to change how a student approaches learning and life? Or are we in an ethically cleaner place if we make the case for speaking up—laying out the reasons, identifying the skills, offering chances to practice and provide feedback all the while respecting their preference to remain silent? Introverts abound. They find their way around in the world. They experience professional success. If they choose to accept the consequences, shouldn’t silence be their choice?
We need to move the worlds of those who talk and those who don’t closer together, not further apart. Introverts need to work on their communications skills; most of them need to talk more. Extroverts need to work on their communication skills; most of them need to talk less. Teachers can have the same goals for both, and achieving those goals mandates teacher responses that are balanced, proportional, and as wise as Solomon’s.
Here’s a recent article that offers an excellent overview of the research on and current thinking about quiet students. It’s worth reading!
Medaille, A., & Usinger, J. (2019). Engaging quiet students in the college classroom. College Teaching, 67(2), 130–137. https://doi.org/10.1080/87567555.2019.1579701
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