103

I have been part of several classes where no-one wants to answer questions or actively take much part in the discussions. I am sure this must be frustrating for the lecturers, who try really hard to get us to answer and get an interesting discussion going.

Obviously, one answer to fix this is to suck it up and just answer the question and explain your opinion. However, as I am sure some of you know, such silences are overwhelming; it is as if the air forces you to not do anything, just sit there and wait for the one person who saves the class every time.

However, what can the lecturer do? Once the lecturer knows they are dealing with such a class, surely something should be done? In my opinion, the lecturer needs to stop asking questions to the entire class, but point at students and make them answer in that way. "What do you think, Pat?", is what I mean. If Pat does not know, that is fine; then move on to another one. As a student myself, I think this is the best way for a lecturer to approach this. Often the students are friends, or loosely know each other, so there is no rational reason for why the students don't dare to say anything. As I said, it is as if there is something in the air.

So, I know there are lecturers out there. What at your strategies for fixing this? Or perhaps other students have experienced lectures that cured this problem? I am talking mostly of small classrooms, not 100+ lecture halls.

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    "so there is no rational reason for why the students don't dare to say anything": Well, when I was a student I've never been interested in answering questions, and surely not for shyness: thus, if professors asked questions, I simply ignored them, unless they called me explicitly at the blackboard to solve exercises... which actually happened a couple of times during the Master's courses. I'm not a fan of "engaging" lectures. It should be mentioned, however, that in my country this kind of engaging lectures, where the professor ask questions to students during the lectures, is uncommon. – Massimo Ortolano Apr 5 '16 at 15:52
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    Get used to uncomfortable silences, when their discomfort with the silence is stronger than their shyness, they'll start to speak up. – Aaron Hall Apr 5 '16 at 19:46
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    @AaronHall: Why should students be discomforted by silence? I'd be rather discomforted by loud noises that wake me up... – darij grinberg Apr 5 '16 at 22:33
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    this happens in 100 "strong" classes as well. @MassimoOrtolano whether it is shyness or lack of interest I guess the problem is still the same. It's funny you say that it's uncommon in Italy because that's not my experience at all, I guess polimi has different teaching culture than polito. Several professors also do what OP said (sudden fingerpointing and direct question with a serious face), some even with trick questions. – Formagella Apr 5 '16 at 22:35
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    As a lecturer, it is hard to guess why the class is silent. It could be shyness, but also questions being too difficult or so easy it bores the class. Each reason would require different actions. One can try to overcome this silence by telling the students that one needs their feedback to improve lecturing. But sometimes they remain silent, then there is not much you can do about. Students at a university are grown-ups - if they don't want to, you can't force communication :) – Arsak Apr 6 '16 at 4:44

14 Answers 14

71

I think the best way to deal with this as an instructor is to set the tone right from the first day.

  • Make it clear you want an interactive class room, and that includes the students asking questions and even challenging you as well as having the students answer your questions.
  • Make sure your questions are worth answering. No one wants to answer an obvious question that was in the book they read for the day ("How may valence electrons does an oxygen atom have?"). Students like questions where they have to think a bit or interpret a bit.
  • Conversely, make sure your questions are not too hard, and that they are not unclear.
  • If all else fails -- and it often does the first time you ask an interesting question on the first day of class -- this is what I do. I wait a moment, then smile and acknowledge the awkward silence. And then I let the class know that I want an interactive class and that I'm perfectly happy to stand at the front the room through the awkward silence for as long as it takes. From my tone, I make it very clear that this not me being strict and judgemental, but that I want to work with them and that's why I am doing this.
  • 54
    One thing I often say to my students after a long silence in response to a question is that they don't have to have a complete answer in order to raise their hand -- just any contribution they can make, which can even be a question of their own. – Ben Crowell Apr 5 '16 at 20:56
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    +1 for mentioning that you should make it clear you're not trying to be strict or judgmental. My probability professor would engage in these "forced long silences," and got markedly mad and yelled at us when the whole class stayed silent for about three minutes after asking a question. I think this just made the whole class resent him, and after that many people (including myself, regrettably) just stopped showing up to lecture. – anonymouse Apr 5 '16 at 23:53
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    I had professor that was good, but that asked difficult questions, and looked around for an answer. I think she didn't realize the questions were so hard -- eventually the "whatever contribution method" worked so we could come to the answer together. – Nate 8 Apr 6 '16 at 1:28
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    "Students like questions where they have to think a bit or interpret a bit." What country are you from, and when can I move there? – PyRulez Apr 6 '16 at 2:51
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    @PyRulez I think you're being overly cynical. As a student myself, I love the feeling of being fully engaged in a challenging lecture. And many of my friends have just started talking to me about how they prefer in-person lectures because it gives them a chance to interact with their professors! – Kevin Apr 7 '16 at 1:46
54

I have observed a class which was taught alternately by two different instructors. One of the instructors (G) almost always immediately got interaction and involvement from many members of the class. The other instructor (B) would often be faced with silence. Same students, same time of day, similar subject material, very different behaviour.

I think the major differences in instructor behaviour I observed were:

  1. B would phrase his questions as a request for a fact. "What are the consequences of idea X?"

    G would usually ask for experiences or opinions. "What happened when you tried to apply idea X to the situation in the tutorial question?", "Has anyone tried to apply idea X in any other situation? What happened?"

  2. B would sometimes indicate that he though an answer was poor. B's comments seemed to deter people from speaking.

    G would usually just ask a follow up question, or ask if anyone else had anything to add. G's process typically resulted in discussion and an improved answer from the same or another student.

  3. B would try to force the students to answer if no one did "I will just wait until someone answers" or "I will pick on someone if you don't answer".

    G would remember the students from the tutorial/coursework/previous lectures/etc, and ask someone by name "Lucy, I think you encountered something related to this, can you tell us about it?".

  4. B would make jokes during his lecture indicating that he though some particular approach or idea was inferior to another e.g "idea Y is really good, some people use idea Z but they probably haven't heard of the internet". I suspect these jokes put off students, "what if he also thinks the thing I am going to mention is stupid".

    G would stick to precise statements, "in situation X, idea Y works like ... whereas idea Z works like ...".

  • I like to make jokes sometimes, but not on students expense... Also, I like painting an imaginary situation that is a bit crazy (and funny). This is particularly easy to do in combinatorics.. – Per Alexandersson Apr 8 '16 at 13:44
21

One strategy is for a professor to ask questions that are easier to answer. This is not the same as asking easier questions.

One of the more often used sample teaching pedagogy techniques (at least in America) is to teach a class how to make a peanut butter & jelly sandwich. This is done because most American teachers are well aware of how to make a peanut butter & jelly sandwich, so teaching technique can better be focused on in the absence of other thought.

In this scenario: If a question's answer is vague, then students are less likely to answer. E.G. "Can anyone tell me why that is?" The student might think: What is "why" and "that"? Is (s)he talking about the last step we just did? Are we talking about the entire process? Is she talking about a particular element that was shown but not verbalized?

A better question from the professor might be "Why might I put peanut butter on both sides of a sandwich?" [If no answer, lead to that answer]: "Okay, what happens to the jelly side of a sandwich?"

Student: The bread gets soggy.

Teacher: "Does the peanutbutter side of the sandwich get soggy?"

Student: "No."

Teacher: "So one side of the sandwich gets soggy while the other does not. What do we think might happen if we put peanut butter on both sides of the sandwich?"

You can do all sorts of tricks and play psychological games with students, but until questions are asked that are easy to answer (again, not the same as an easier question), students will hesitate to answer when asked.

  • 23
    Wait.. I've been making my pb+j wrong my whole life?? – Adam Martin Apr 6 '16 at 2:57
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    Sir! Sir! Surely a more efficient protocol is to peanut-butter only one slice, then jelly it, then fold it over? – Dewi Morgan Apr 6 '16 at 18:33
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    But then, you only get half a sandwich... – Azor Ahai Apr 7 '16 at 1:11
  • I like the soggy side, tho... – DSKekaha Apr 7 '16 at 15:20
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    Hey, are we just commenting on this because these ideas work? – candied_orange Apr 7 '16 at 23:42
11

Classroom response devices, also known as "clickers," can help overcome this to some degree. These are devices about the size of a remote control (some systems also work well with mobile phones and/or mobile computers; even Google Forms can be used for this) where a professor asks a question and presents typically 4-5 multiple choice options. Students vote on what they think is the right answer and the aggregate response graph may be projected live (or not).

If there's a moderately high degree of variance, the professor then asks people to discuss their answer with the person next to them for about a minute, and then can more easily call on people (individually or generally) to share specific reasons why they think one answer is better than another. A second vote is often taken after one or both of those discussion phases. Once people have already thought about how to express their reasoning, and had a short discussion of it with one other person, this reduces the perceived barrier to speaking in front of the class. The instructor can also look at the responses to get feedback on whether or not the class understands the material, or what the spread of opinions is (for more subjective questions), etc. This is sometimes called a vote-pair-share structure.

Some instructors build in assessment (low-stakes quiz questions, e.g. one per class adding up to a quiz score over the course of the semester) with other questions that are not used in assessment. Some use a threshold (e.g. get more than X% of these questions right to earn full points for this small part of your course grade). Some provide credit for answering at all and a bonus for getting the answer correct (e.g. 2 points for answering, 3 for answering correctly). Some don't keep track at all but use it for all the other feedback benefits and may tell students something like "at least one of these questions will appear verbatim on the next quiz" so the students have some additional incentive to take advantage of the feedback opportunity.

(Please feel free to edit with elaborations, links, etc.)

  • 1
    My music appreciation teacher used 1 point for answer, 2 point for close, and 3 for correct. When he realized some of us were monopolizing the answer time, he instituted levels to give opportunities to the less inclined. >6 was level 2, >9 was level 3. I maximized my extra credit by intentionally answering one question relatively correct, so I could hit 8 and then 11 points, rather than (usually) capping out at 11. – Wayne Werner Apr 5 '16 at 20:18
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    The electronic clickers are expensive and totally unnecessary for this purpose. You can accomplish the same things with low-tech methods such as having students hold up their hands, hold up cards, etc. You don't need bar charts to tell what's going on. Just look at the students. – Ben Crowell Apr 5 '16 at 20:55
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    While I agree that the electronic clickers seem overpriced, the anonymity reduces the social pressures and helps get over some of the issues associated with a "shy" class of students who don't want to put their hands up for participation. If students have mobile devices like phones or laptops, those can be a more cost-effective approach. – WBT Apr 5 '16 at 22:12
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    Kahoot is a system that works with web browsers (including mobile web browsers), so students don't need to install an app. It also plays soothing music while the answers come in. – PyRulez Apr 6 '16 at 2:53
  • And, Kahoot is free. getkahoot.com – WBT Apr 6 '16 at 3:20
8

In my experience the key issue (as touched upon by Will R's answer) is a simple "cost/benefit analysis" from the point of view of the student.

Potential benefits of answering:

  • you engage in the discussion
  • you show that you are following the lecture
  • you can establish yourself as a smart student... if the answer is interesting/correct

On the other hand, the potential risks are:

  • if the answer is wrong, risk of appearing stupid in front of your peers and the lecturer
  • whether or not the answer is right, there's a risk of appearing as a show-off, or someone who is trying to become a "teacher's pet"

Plus, speaking in front of an audience is notoriously difficult for insecure people. Not answering seems to be often a safer strategy.

To change this cost/benefit analysis in my experience the best options are:

  • frame the question so that it's more "opinion based" rather than "fact based", i.e. reduce the chance that you can give a blatantly wrong answer

    • not "should this function be differentiable?" but rather "what features do you think this function should have?" which also opens up the possibility of less technical answers (e.g. it should be "soft")
  • make sure that the lecturer is perceived as friendly and reacts to errors in a relaxed way ("it's interesting that you would think so; I see where you are coming from with that; however...")

5

In my opinion, a good solution is to, in whatever way seems appropriate, set the situation up so that all the students have the opportunity to respond, and, simultaneously, none of the students who choose to respond need feel held accountable for their answer. In particular, "pointing at students to answer the question" is a bad idea, and in fact is the antithesis of my suggestion.

The rest of this post is my (unfortunately quite long-winded) explanation of this suggestion.


Selecting individual students to answer questions is, in my opinion, a bad strategy in general. It might work in small group situations where you can have a personal student-teacher relationship with everyone there, but I don't think it will work to your favour in large groups. In particular, it ignores the feelings of the students:

  • First, it's potentially embarrassing to get the question wrong (whether or not you, as the lecturer, think it should be embarrassing is irrelevant - for some people, it is embarrassing).

  • Second, to pick a student out from the crowd is to ignore the possibility of said student having, say, anxiety issues, or a social disorder, or a (possibly irrational) fear of being "in-the-spotlight", or any number of combinations of other things.

Both of these issues mean that this strategy ultimately alienates you from your audience, even if only a little bit. This is not an environment in which students like to respond to questions, and some students may as a result opt out of attending the lectures when they can.

At my university, some lecturers have decided to take different approaches to asking questions, and they seem to have more success getting responses. In particular, two methods which seem to have been effective in some of the modules I have taken so far are the following.

  • Telling the class to discuss the question amongst themselves for a minute-or-so before expecting for the answer. The wording here is important: if the lecturer does not tell the class what the appropriate action is, then it could be argued that the only action the lecturer can truly expect is inaction, i.e., silence. If this does not seem wholly reasonable, think of it this way: it's plausible that the crushing silence when the lecturer asks their question is the audience's response to simply not knowing what to do in such a situation. In light of this, the lecturer might find it helpful to explicitly tell the audience not just what to do (answer the question) but also how to do it (by working in pairs/in groups).

  • Voting systems in general (see @WBT's answer, "classroom response devices"), but, in particular, anonymous in-class Google forms. See this blog post from Dr Joel Feinstein's blog Explaining Mathematics for some more details. This might seem like a bad idea (encouraging students to use their phones in lectures?), but it certainly got people answering the questions. Because the class uses their phones to respond, it's (a) cheaper and (b) slightly more relaxed than using some kind of remote-based voting system, and this relaxed atmosphere encourages the students' responses.

I think the key to both of these approaches is that the students get to act as a group: no single student ever has to feel responsible for their (possibly incorrect!) answer. In the first approach, their peers influence their answer; in the second, the answer (that is, the majority vote) is influenced by their peers.

2

There are several strategies that one can use, most revolve around getting then thinking a bit before responding in a way that's not dead time, and/or making them feel comfortable (that is, not nervous/anxious) within the class environment.

One is to give students questions or things to consider while doing their readings at home. That way, when in class, students aren't caught off guard by a question: they'll already have had time to process a potential answer and feel less on the spot. This works well for both very short answers and discussion type questions.

Another way (for discussion type questions) is to very quickly break then into pairs groups of three to discuss answers and they have one group present an answer. This also has the advantage of getting nearly all the students to respond in some way. When I do this in my class, the group time might be a single minute or two, with two or three minutes discussion.

An oddly simple strategy is to walk around the classroom while asking. For some students, I think, responding to a professor at a podium in the front makes them feel all eyes are on them (granted, that's probably true). When the professor is right next to them, it can feel more like a conversation. The downside to this one is some students will feel doubly on the spot. But used judiciously, it can be effective.

If you can lead into it with a primer question having then raise their hands, you can jump start participation. For example, "how many of y'all have been to [country]?" Choose a person or two based on the question(s), and follow up with the main question.

2

Some people prefer to think about new ideas for a while and look them up from other sources before asking/answering questions. If that is the case, any questions the lecturer asks on the topic of the current lecture may just distract the students and hinder their ability to learn. With such students, it may be better to ask questions about the topic of the previous lecture instead.

1

I searched this page for "Vibe" "Energy" "Enthusiasm" "Non judgment" "Tone" "Humor/ Humour" "Laugh" "Fun" and not a single answer had these words in there.

there is no rational reason for why the students don't dare to say anything. As I said, it is as if there is something in the air.

The answer is there in your question itself.

There are psychological - emotional - mental behavioral components to this scenario that no one has mentioned.

You need to tune into them to "defuse" whatever "something is in the air".

Its just about the tone of the conversation having a VIBE/ ENERGY that is tough for me to convey in words; there's enthusiasm & encouraging similar enthusiasm & interest in the people around you/ in your audience. If you cannot inspire such a vibe, then forget about getting participation.

In my experience, even SHY or QUIET people open up if you are able to make them laugh; Humor :)

Another is EMPATHY. If you can laugh at yourself or your humor shows you are human yourself and not judgmental on a high horse as faculty, then they feel they can open up and speak.

Point being, if the energy/ vibe is light & enthusiastic towards the subject and sprinkled with little "fun" and less seriousness/ dryness then you'll have more participation without fear of "judgment" from the teacher or fellow students.

The major difference in participation is not about content, it's about "styling" & "presentation" and "articulation" of the content so that it appeals to the audience.

And a large part of making a "dry" boring topic interesting is "being creative" and the easiest thing you can do is add Humor/ Fun/ some Enthusiasm

Now, outlining what kind & flavor of humor will be appropriate & permissible as per rules & regulations of "code of conduct" is out of scope to discuss here.

Nonetheless, the most memorable and fun professors and classes or presentations/ seminars/ talks I had as a student, as a professional or as a speaker/ presenter/ communicator had a small amount of humor sprinkled; making people laugh, smile, grin and have a little fun, while still staying on Subject.

It does not have to be political or sexist humor. Typically light and non controversial where people feel more light & relaxed. It's not even about jokes.

Is there a technique of pathway for this. It would vary largely based on place, speaker & audience. But great presentation skills/ books is something that should be brushed.

Agenda:

What is the agenda? Is it to sell something or is it to get people to absorb and learn something, or is it an ego trip of a CEO/ CTO to show off something?

People read into agenda & intention. If you convey the right intent using some of the above thoughts and people feel that intent aligns with them then they will connect with you.

PS: I remember this asst professor who taught as a tutor outside of our university college the dry & mind boggling and complex subject of foundational "Television & Video technology". He broke it down, made it sample and added tiny bits of humor to get us all into the subject which was so dry that if I read one paragraph of the book I'd sleep. But, his way, we just put all notes on one diagram as he showed us and I knew everything I needed to know.

Another small trick, that we used at some "motivational & leadership" talks/ workshops in addition to making it fun with a bunch of humor;

A small packet of wrapped candy/ toffee - Throw one to each student who participated / tried to answer or even if completely incorrect. Making it a fun non judgmental game where people are not afraid to TRY even if the answer is wrong. The reward is not huge, but it gets the juices & fun mood flowing :)

Bottomline:

These are soft skills and there tons of books and training programs and coaches out there on soft skills. Depending on the demographics what you do and how you get them to participate will vary.

  • Culture - US/ UK / EU/ Asia/ Japanese/ Chinese/ South America
  • Age/ Level: Undergrad/ Grad/ MBA/ Professional or Exec MBA
  • Subject: Technical/ Business/ Philosophical/ Math/ Etc.

Too much variance to give a specific "flavor" but it boils down to adding some of these elements as part of presentation skills.

After decades of classes, I do not remember the content of the courses, but I remember parts of it because of how the professor articulated them using the above elements.

  • 1
    I agree with the spirit of this answer, but... You forgot to search the word "joke"; in doing so you would have discovered that penguin's answer cites poor humor as a strong force against class participation. I am currently in a similar situation and have observed the same. In the past, I have been in the uncomfortable position of having to tell a professor that the jokes he made in class were sexist, since he was clearly not aware. What counts as appropriate not only depends on the culture of the school, but also the culture of the students, of which a typical class will have many. [...] – Eric Stucky Apr 7 '16 at 8:36
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    A lot of these suggestions would probably have exactly the opposite effect on a student like me. I go to lectures to learn, not to be entertained or to get free candy. But maybe that makes me the outlier... – Ixrec Apr 7 '16 at 8:38
  • [...] At a lesser extreme, sometimes humor just falls flat doesn't do anything for the class. But, on the other hand, I can tell the same stories about my best professors: they were comfortable joking in front of the class, knew the students and talked with them personably. This is the essential problem with 'advising' someone to try humor: it's a high-risk, high-reward sort of thing. Compounding this, you have to set the tone before you have the chance to know the audience. It can take a month or longer to recover from something you say on Day 1. [...] – Eric Stucky Apr 7 '16 at 8:40
  • [sorry for the dots, I did not have more to say] @lxrec: I disagree with this objection. It's no different than offering coffee and donuts at a colloquium. Nobody is there for the food (except the grad students, of course XD), but the body's state is not unrelated to the mind's. – Eric Stucky Apr 7 '16 at 9:31
  • Please note, this is not about replacing the vegetables with herbs & spices but to add it a little. As I mentioned above, "Now, outlining what kind & flavor of humor will be appropriate & permissible as per rules & regulations of "code of conduct" is out of scope to discuss here." This would hugely change from place to place to culture. It need not be off topic / sexist humor.. At times it was as simple as the prof saying "if you dont put that component there, then you cant tune into the frequency" with a smile - And most mild humor is not about sexism or even specific jokes.... – Alex S Apr 7 '16 at 10:13
1

Many times, this "shyness" you describe is really a room full of people waiting for someone else to answer. I try a few different approaches from time to time; all of these have been effective to some degree or another:

  • Take a page out of the flipped classroom. Have the students get into teams of two or three, and discuss the issue at hand for five minutes. Then, call on groups individually: "What did you come up with? What do you think? Who thought of a different approach?" By letting the students discuss the matter more privately first, they seem less reluctant to share with the entire class.
  • Make a game out of it, and let the dice decide. I've occasionally grouped my class roster into subgroups of 6, and rolled a pair of dice to see who would answer the next question. (I've also used a 20-sided die on occasion; computer scientists seem especially appreciative of this approach.)
  • Just skip over the question. (Of course, this one comes with a price!) One time, I said to the class, "No one wants to answer this question? No one? Going once... going twice... gone. Fine, I'll save that one for the final exam." I then changed the slide quickly, and added, "You're going to answer these questions one way or the other. We can discuss them in class, or you can write essays on the exam." (I don't recommend doing this one often, but it can set the tone early in the semester.) By the way, the next time I threw out a question in that lecture, five or six hands shot into the air. From that point on, "Going once..." would be enough to get the conversation started.
  • Learn to be patient, and don't freak out when there's a long silence. I understand that there will be times when the students won't be talkative, but I've learned that's part of the process. Sometimes students will keep quiet because they know you'll jump in and answer you own question, so stand your ground, and don't let them off the hook.
  • Put humorous prompts into your lecture slides. I often enlist help from celebrities when I'm planning to ask a question that I think the class might balk on. For example, I once put this into my slide:

       enter image description here

       and then, when nobody answered, I clicked one more time to reveal the rest of the picture:

       enter image description here

       At the end of the term, one of the students recounted this slide on the end-of-course surveys,
       saying, "Best discussion motivator ever!"

1

Professor Kingsfeild is the master of class engagement. Watch and learn. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_wOUMd3bMRI

0

Why do think the students do not like to engage in the lecture (I understood that you are a student who lectures?). Is it in all the classes (or sections) you teach? Or just this particular section. Do you think that the lectures are boring? Material is very simple? Too complicated? They can not understand you? There is a sort of cultural barrier (maybe)? Sometimes if the lecture is early in the morning or late in the afternoon, students seem to be on airplane mode!

You need to tackle this issue from different angles. For instance, try to ask for feedback either formally (ask few random students) or informally (anonymous/online surveys). You can ask few colleagues to attend your actual lecture or a mock up lecture (where they can video tape you) in which they can provide some insights to how you can improve your skills (if needed). Maybe you can start awarding bonus points to however answers "this question" or can explain "this point". You can also do this, let's say that you are explaining a lecture on "structural design". You can say, "Well, Robert is design engineers who works at firm owned by Sally (another student)" The more students you engage, the better.

0

I've read several studies from educational psychology where interaction is beneficial, which contradicts some of the other answers here, so it is good that you are trying to get them engaged.

From the courses I have taken, I have seen a few variations of this method that seemed to work:

  • Use a system that allows you to pick a student randomly and systematically. So the idea is to randomly call on each student the same number of times. I've seen this done with a stack of notecards with each student's name. You select a card and call on that student then you place that card in a separate pile. Once everyone has been called on, then all the cards get shuffled and the process repeats. Another way I have seen it done is using an iPad app.

Once my instructors started grading us based on this, there was a dramatic difference in the answers students provided (as well as how much reading I did outside of the class).

0

I always to engage students in discussion, and when nobody answers questions, I walk among the desks, and ask one random student, "What do you think of this issue?"

There are ethnic groups that are trained not to make eye contact or ask questions, which would expose their ignorance. This is difficult for them. You are in an American university, are you not? Please adapt to the local culture.

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