CREATING A CLASSROOM IN WHICH
STUDENTS COMFORTABLY SPEAK UP

by Marlene Cohen, Coordinator, Communication Across the Curriculum

[Reprinted from Prince Georges Community College, Reasoning Across the Curriculum Newsletter , volume 1, no. 4 (February 1995)]

At the start of each semester, we have the advantage of the clean slate . . . a chance to start from scratch creating the type of classroom climate we want, which fosters the sorts of discussions which encourage learning. But how do we avoid the typical pattern of a few talkers and many listeners? I suggest a reconsideration of tips from Teaching Faculty Members to be Better Teachers (Sandler and Hoffman, Association of American Colleges, 1992), Strategies to Extend Student Thinking (Division of Instruction, Maryland State Department of Education, 1989), and some of my own ideas.

When I have asked about the use of structured classroom discussion, most frequently faculty describe to me the problem of a few students talking, while most sit silently. Only a raging extrovert might assume that all the good ideas got aired. Introverts, who desire more process time, and those who feel less at home in the classroom, are the likely silent partners. Their creativity and their questions are never heard. There is no question that communication discomfort in the classroom is a multicultural issue; nontraditional college student groups, including women and at-risk students, are widely reported as less a part of classroom interaction. While multicultural sensitivity is a separate piece of the puzzle, here I will focus on ways to increase the comfort level for all students to participate.

In its 1992 report Teaching Faculty Members to be Better Teachers, the Association of American Colleges (authors Beatrice Resnick Sandler and Ellen Hoffman) offers some tips to reduce the chilly climate for women on which it earlier reported. Below I've adapted these tips and merged them with some of Strategies to Extend Student Thinking (Division of Instruction, Maryland State Department of Education, 1989), and my own ideas. This list aims at encouraging all students to engage in the discussion.

If you already follow these tips, consider this a refresher course:

1. On the first day, tell students that all are expected to participate. Encourage those uncomfortable with this to see you privately. In the office, give examples of types of questions you will ask and types of answers that would be appropriate. (Also, send them to Marlene's next speaking fears workshop!!)

2. Call on all students by name. (Don't use "Mister" for the men, even in jest, while using first names for the women!)

3. Sometimes, call on students directly even when they don't raise their hands. (I do so when the question is less threatening, as summarizing points from last class. Inevitably the student I single out volunteers later the same period!)

4. Monitor your selection of speakers. Try to call on men and women, African-Americans and white Americans, internationals, etc., in roughly the same ratio in the classroom.

5. After asking a question, WAIT. The average professor's "wait time" is ONE SECOND! Allow all students time to process before speaking, at least three seconds.

6. Coach reluctant students with follow-up questions. "Tell me more." "Can you give an example?" "Why do you think that is?" Your nonverbal message should be encouraging, smiling, supporting, not challenging. Coaching conveys your belief that the student is bright enough to say more.

7. Watch for nonverbal clues that a student has something to say. Encourage it with something like, "Would you like to add to this?" or "Tiffany looks like she disagrees..."

8. When a student deserves it, offer significant praise, as "I like what Denise just said," or "Monell's showing us that the alternative viewpoint is just as valid."

9. Keep a teaching diary, especially at the start of a semester. Note which students are contributing and encourage those who are not.

10. Use the same tone of voice when talking to all students. Monitor your voice for impatience, dismissal, interrupting; weed them out!

11. Avoid the generic "he" or "mankind." Use "he or she" or alternate male and female examples.

12. Cue student responses by saying, if valid, "There is not a single right answer to the question." "What other alternatives?"

Monitor your responses to be sure you reward answers that work, even if they weren't on your list. Now, a few Marlene additions:

13. Monitor your examples to vary cultural references, diminishing those that might be alien to some students. For example, I wouldn't cover "my trip to Europe," or life in the suburbs, to the exclusion of life in the city. Encourage your diverse class members to help in providing examples, each of which may be more relevant to a different portion of the class.

14. When participation is low, stop the full-group discussion. Ask students to first write their own answers to the question. Then they might talk in pairs or small groups to answer the question. The preparation steps help students build confidence in their ideas.

15. Ask a question at the end of class for students to come prepared to answer next class. This gives them time to process and evaluate their own responses. Even better answers will come if students write first, then share ideas they wrote.

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