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Perpetually Silent Students

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Ask the class several easy recall questions on the assigned readings or other homework. These questions will reduce anxiety, and after one or two students break the ice, others are more likely to feel comfortable speaking.


The posting below gives some suggestions on how to help more students engage in class discussions.  It is from Chapter 3 – Preventing and Responding to Common Discussion Pitfalls, in the book, Creating Engaging Discussions Strategies for “Avoiding Crickets” in Any Size Classroom and Online, by Jennifer H. Herman and Linda B. Nilson. Published by Stylus Publishing, LLC 22883 Quicksilver Drive Sterling, Virginia 20166-2102. Copyright © 2018 by Stylus Publishing, LLC. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis
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Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning

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Challenge 4: Perpetually Silent Students

Crickets refers to utter silence across an entire class, but the problem we’re addressing here pertains to individual students who never talk or post. The possible reasons for silence are numerous. Students may be shy, reserved, or introverted; they may be dealing with a learning disability, anxiety, grief, depression, medical challenges, or autism (see the later section on students with autism spectrum disorder); the classroom climate may make them feel isolated or uneasy; their jobs may leave them perpetually exhausted; they may feel uncomfortable expressing themselves in English; they may come from a culture that frowns on students who speak out publicly; or there may be other reasons. Some of the remedies for crickets, specifically those remedies that reduce the risk of contributing, may bring out some of the ever-quiet students (Bold, 2011; Nilson, 2016):

- Ask the class several easy recall questions on the assigned readings or other homework. These questions will reduce anxiety, and after one or two students break the ice, others are more likely to feel comfortable speaking.

- Ask for students’ emotional reactions to the assigned readings or other homework. Again, these are easy questions that should evoke a student reaction.

- Give a writing prompt, such as a reflective question, on the assigned readings or other homework. This exercise will refresh students’ memory of the homework.

- Give students time to write down their answers before calling on anyone. They are more likely to contribute if they have their responses in front of them.

- Ask students to brainstorm what they already know about a topic or what outcomes they expect of an experiment or a situation. Because these questions have no wrong answers, they are low risk.

- Have one or more students read key text passages aloud, and then ask why these are key passages. Reticent students are more likely to speak after hearing themselves and their peers speak.

- Break the class into groups and ask them to answer questions. The answers may improve, and students are not taking on any individual risk.

- Allow students to engage in conversation before responding. This method can evoke contributions for the same reason as the immediately preceding bullet.

- Direct some questions, preferably those not requiring a lengthy response, to individual students or sectors of the room that have been quiet during the class. This technique ensures that you make eye contact with these students and lets them know that you have haven’t overlooked them.

- Rotate the role of closing facilitator among your students (Herman & Nilson, 2016). This individual independently leads the last 10 minutes of discussion on the topic of “What haven’t we said yet?” All students will have the chance to speak sooner or later.

- Ask quiet students to visit you during office hours and ask them why they haven’t participated recently. Perhaps they are facing one or more of the challenges listed at the beginning of this section. In any case, encourage them to participate. Whatever may be holding students back, give them a discussion prompt you’d like them to respond to during the next class and have them rehearse their answer with you.

- Extend students’ participation by having them post to a class blog, wiki, discussion board, or chat. Sometimes students who are quiet in class can be surprisingly vocal in online discussion.


Bold, M. (2001). When a student feels stupid. National Teaching and Learning Forum, 10(2), 1-4.

Herman, J.H., & Nilson, L.B. (2016, November). A discussion on discussion fordeep learning. Roundtable at the annual conference of the Professional and Organization Development (POD) Network in Higher Education, Louisville, KY.

Nilson, L.B. (2016). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors (4th ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.