Managing a Class Discussion- Part II

All I could hear was the hum and rattle of the window heating system as my small groups of introductory biology students were supposed to be discussing a fairly exciting article about the evolution of blind cave fish (isn’t that inherently kinda cool and thrilling? Who wouldn’t have lots to say about blind cavefish?). It was like this every time I tried discussions or small group activities. Here it was the seventh week into the semester and I was at my wits’ end.

If I put together an exciting, humor-filled, multi-media presentation that normally provoked student questions or comments, the class would just sit there looking up at me. A couple of students would faintly smile. If I specifically called on students by name, Socratic style, each would speak in clipped, nervous tones, speaking for the bare minimum amount of time to answer a question. If I broke them into small groups of various sorts (see some of my earlier posts for the kinds of small group activities I have used very successfully), silence swelled up like a thick black cloud and squelched all discussion, whether I left the room or stayed in the room or visited the groups. And just forget about whole class discussions! A few students had visited me, singly, during my office hours, and had complained to me about the oppressively silent atmosphere in the class. One said, “I really like you and the course material. I want to help out by saying something, but I just can’t bring myself to say anything.” So, even they were aware that this was an unusual class dynamic.

One day a couple of weeks before the end of the semester, I stood at the front of the class, after yet another failed attempt to get some discussion going using some crazy idea I’d come up with, and I said, “We’ve all been having trouble discussing things in class. Do you have any ideas for me to help you find your voices in here?” [crickets, crickets, crickets] I asked again, “Would you just like me to lecture?” [crickets, crickets, crickets]

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So that’s what I did, the rest of the semester. I lectured. I asked questions and rarely received a response. I answered my own questions. I told jokes that no one laughed at. Whatever. I just gave up.

Have you ever had an experience like this?

What ideas do you have about generating class discussion when your students are so “shy” or reluctant that they do not cooperate?

What do you do if you cannot get your students to talk in a class discussion?


2 thoughts on “Managing a Class Discussion- Part II

  1. I have, and I don’t have a good solution for it. I find it happens more often toward the end of the semester (starting to experience it this semester). I think the students get worn out, less prepared, and less interested in participating in something (discussions) that don’t directly affect their grades. Clearly we think the discussions ultimately help their understanding and grades, but I think at such a point in the semester it doesn’t seem worth it to them. I teach astronomy and we’re reaching the point in the semester about the Sun’s death and then black holes – who wouldn’t be interested in that? 🙂

  2. I find this to be most true in my non-major Gen. Ed. science class. I always start the semester with good intentions of evoking all kinds of participation but they drive me to the one-sided lecturing with their silence and unwillingness to participate in their own education! If I don’t, we would end up covering almost nothing and the few truly interested students would get cheated. But every semester I try out different sorts of participatory plans hoping this will be the group that buys into it!

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