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Silence in Discussion? Pause and Write

Mon Jan 13, 2020 at 07:30 AM

Even the most vibrant of classes fall victim to a lull in the discussion. This lull can occur for a variety of reasons such as tired students, challenging concepts, or difficult-to-articulate questions. Rather than moving the discussion along with a different question or ending the discussion, keep students in the moment by giving them time to write, reflect, and re-engage. The act of writing can help all types of learners slow down and process the content being discussed.

Allow 8 seconds of silence

Let’s admit it—we dread the silence that falls on a class discussion as much, if not more, than our students. We want to rush in on the silence the moment we sense it is coming with follow-up questions or elaborations. While these may be necessary, challenge yourself to allow the silence to hang among students. (I actually have to count to eight slowly in my head.) This communicates to students their responsibility to keep the dialogue going and that you want to hear from them.

After two minutes of writing, come back to the discussion.

If allowing brief silence does not result in fruitful discussion, have students take a few moments to write their response to a question when spontaneous response has stalled. Then, ask students to share what they wrote verbally. This may be the only jumpstart needed.

Collect written responses, and use them to continue the discussion.

If you or students have 4 x 6-inch note cards, invite students to write a response to a discussion question on a card and pass it to you. A 30-second review of cards is enough to find responses worth sharing that can keep the discussion going and prompt further questions or comments from students. Suggestion: Require students to always have a stack of note cards with them, as they are effective active learning tools that can be used to share ideas in many ways and for many purposes. If you only anticipate using them a few times a semester, stock up on some to distribute to students as needed.

If the discussion is truly fading, have students reflect in writing on how the discussion fits in with the larger picture.

When a good stopping point arises in conversation, ask students to write a conclusion statement of sorts, such as the examples below. This is sometimes called a “one-minute paper” and is typically submitted to the instructor, although grading is not required. Concluding with reflection is a powerful learning method for making sure students retain knowledge and understand its significance. 

  • How does this discussion fit in with this class session’s/the course’s learning outcomes? 
  • What are the 1-2 most important points to take away from this discussion? 
  • What questions and considerations should be added to this discussion?

In a busy, noisy world, silence can be a gift. Not only are these strategies a way to occupy an unexpected lull, but a way to invite contributions from all learners, as is promoted with Universal Design for Learning. Keep a pack of index cards as a reminder that silence, even the unexpected kind, is important to any learning environment.

Save and adapt a Google Doc version of this teaching tip.

Written by Christina Moore, Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Oakland University. Originally published October 2017, updated December 2019. Others may share and adapt under Creative Commons License CC BY-NC.

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