Quiet and talkative students find their places on opposites sides of a continuum. At the ends are students who never speak and students who never miss an opportunity to speak. Most talkative students aren’t at the extreme end, but research consistently finds that a fairly small number of students make most of the comments in courses. The too-talkative students are described in the scant literature as contributing to an over-participation problem which can be addressed by a variety of strategies, some of which I highlighted here. As in my previous column on quiet students, I’m interested in how teachers respond to talkative students.
Teachers can become too dependent on those talkative few and not without justification. It is awkward and uncomfortable to ask a question and see no indication of response when everyone present heard the question. The first hand in the air offers a way to end the discomfort, even though it’s regularly the same hand. Most teachers sense there’s a problem if they always go to the same talkative students, and so there’s an attempt to encourage others. But like their teachers, quiet students come to rely on those who regularly speak, and so rather than think about the question, they focus their attention on the regulars, hoping, with fingers crossed, that they will speak up. Should the teacher look in the direction of those sitting quietly in the corner, they can make it very clear that they don’t want to speak which makes the teacher responsible for putting their discomfort on public display. And so the teacher defers to the regulars.
It’s the talkative students who usually ask questions, whether during class, after it, or online. They appear (and perhaps are) interested in the content, and that merits a positive, encouraging teacher response. These may be the students likeliest to succeed, and being there to help a motivated, capable learner is one of the joys of teaching. But teachers make assumptions about talkative students that are not always true. Most of us know that; some students are masters at performing the behaviors they know impress teachers. What’s of more concern is how easy it is to favor the talkative students over the quiet ones. Talkative students respond. They’re easier to deal with, but they’re also not nearly as needy as some of those who sit quietly in fear and confusion. And they’re easier to deal with than those who may be thoughtfully and silently participating but who look just like those silently uninterested in learning.
When it comes to professional skills, talking too much is just as serious a problem as not talking enough. Those who talk a lot tend to listen less. They speak freely and often at length about what’s on their minds and not usually about what others have expressed. They don’t keep track of how frequently they’re talking or see the nonverbal signals that they’ve talked too much. Too much talking does to interactions in the classroom exactly what it does on faculty committees and in professional contexts.
Unfortunately though, teachers seem more comfortable with the idea of getting students to talk more than with getting them to talk less. Teachers encourage quiet students in public, but they rarely discourage talkative students. And it’s the teacher who recognizes the frequent participator and gives them yet another opportunity to speak. It’s the teacher (not usually the rest of class) who listens attentively as the student goes on and on, rarely interrupting or requesting a concluding comment. Should we be letting students who talk too much get away with it?
That’s not a rhetorical question. The call to respect the learning needs of quiet students is equally appropriate for those students who approach learning verbally, talking their way through to understanding. So, the focus should be not changing who students are but helping them develop the skill sets necessary to interact effectively in public and when they work with others. Few quiet persons morph into social butterflies, and those who love to talk rarely find silence anything but stifling. Nonetheless, effective communication relies on speaking and listening with the ability to determine whether a situation calls for silence or interaction being key.
Yes, we need good techniques for dealing with those who talk too much and those who don’t talk enough, but we also need to examine our assumptions, question their accuracy, and recognize that how we respond to students shapes how they respond to us and to learning.
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