Sounds of Silence: Managing Student Preparation

In all the teaching orientations and training manuals I’ve encountered, they all advise instructors not to be afraid of silence. The average student, they say, takes up to 8 seconds to mentally prepare an answer to an analytical query. But what happens when the silence isn’t because students are choosing which of their brilliant thoughts to share with the class but because most of them failed to do the reading? I suspect every college teacher has had a class session in which most questions were met with complete silence. What can we, as the instructors, do in such situations? And how can we better incentivize students to take their assigned reading seriously?

Let me begin with the latter question. I struggled with the issue of incentivization leading up to this semester. So I decided to institute a 150 to 250-word weekly reading response requirement. In fact, they’re more like reading “tasks,” since I design them to target a specific reading skill. So far, these have included such tasks as comparing and contrasting the different approach in two biographical essays by the same author, reading a primary source from the perspective of a contemporary reader, and identifying an author’s source base and how they are using it. One of my goals for each section is to help students further develop their academic skills. And so, each week when I give them the task, I make a point of explaining why I have assigned this task and what the specific skill is that the task requires.

Initially, I hoped that assigning these tasks would prove useful in two ways. First, I hoped it would incentivize students to do the reading by adding an objective aspect to their participation grade. Second, I expected their responses to the tasks could serve as either a jumping-off point for discussion or something to fall back on if discussion is not flowing. So far, they seem to have achieved both goals to some degree. Engagement has been good overall and the responses have allowed me to not only kickstart discussion but also to direct them a little better when necessary. As a side benefit, it has allowed me to praise in class a few quiet students who submit a high-quality response, thereby giving them the confidence to participate in the discussion, i.e., “‘So-and-so made an excellent point in their response. Can you tell us a bit more about that?” Now, I know that sounds like “manual-speak,” but it has actually worked for more than one student so far.

However, all has not been (and, of course, cannot be) smooth sailing. I have had moments where engagement was not especially forthcoming. Preparation in weeks when papers or other assignments are due will almost necessarily take a hit, and that is understandable, to a degree. On the few occasions when discussing the finer points of an argument in the readings is simply not possible, my first tendency was to fall back into lecture mode, even though the pedagogical literature warns against it AND I knew I was doing it. My alternative approach now has become to pull back and engage the students in a macro discussion (still related to the reading in some way) for which the reading they have done previously in the course has already prepared them. That may, for example, turn into a discussion about comparing methodologies or positing very big questions about the course topic as a whole.

Of course, I am rather new at all this and, despite the fragments of teaching manuals swirling around my head while engaged in the actual process, I am very much flying by the seat of my pants, especially in those types of moments. So I ask our readers: What are your strategies for when lack of preparation derails your planned discussion? And what strategies have you tried or would you consider trying to better incentivize students in terms of weekly readings?

9 comments on “Sounds of Silence: Managing Student Preparation

  1. Jason George says:

    Dear Michael,
    I am a high school teacher, but I enjoyed your entry and have forwarded it my fellow department members. I was wondering if you have the capacity to create some type of electronic discussion board in which students respond to one another. This could then be carried over to class discussion as well (similarly to the way that you mention validating the responses of quiet students).
    Sincerely,
    Jason George,
    The Bryn Mawr School (Baltimore, MD)

  2. Dave Edie says:

    I feel your pain sir. I have been teaching community college for 3 years now, and have yet been able to get the students to consistently read their text-look at primary sources or in general prepare themselves better for class. I have attempted the message boards with a question of the week, I have tried to start class with a question for them to answer first on their own, then collectively with their fellow students to illicit discussion. My last resort is pop quizzes in class where I will pull some questions from the reading and allow them 15 min. to use their text book and notes to find the answers. It sometimes gets the point across, at others, I feel like I am trying to teach the walls. i have found though, that it is not just my class that suffers from this malady. The other professors in other departments and fields also relate that their students act the same. I am wondering if it is generational, since Kindle and the internet seem to try and replace the good old fashion book.

  3. Roy Rogers says:

    Michael, this is a really wonderful post!

    When I run into similar issues I tend to go for your option b – “to pull back and engage the students in a macro discussion (still related to the reading in some way).” This has a couple of benefits. It allows you to still get the points across that you need to, despite the lack of prep the students have done. You can also circle around, gradually, to the assigned reading. The “general” discussion tends to get the few students who did the actual reading to start bringing in points from the specific material up for discussion. So, win-win!

    Again, great post!

  4. Michael Blaakman says:

    Great post, Michael. I have two comments. Comment the first is that the structure of an instructor’s question directly shapes the quality of the discussion that follows. When my questions are met with silence, sometimes I realize that I’m among the culprits. For example, students react very poorly to fact-fishing. Questions that end with a “. . . yes?” or “. . . what do you think?” also tend to fall flat. I, for one, find that most of my prep time for discussion sections goes into developing good, open-ended questions–at both micro and macro levels–and then drawing a web of ideas about how I can pivot from any given question to several others. I suppose I’m just echoing your option B, but adding the point that it’s much easier to keep that macro discussion close to the readings if you’ve anticipated and prepared for it (perhaps by having on hand a list of specific, juicy paragraphs or pages from the readings that will allow you to pull macro back down to micro, and towards which you can steer your students and then place them back in control of the conversation).

    Comment the second is that most students are neither fully prepared nor wholly unprepared for discussion. Most will at least familiarize themselves with the readings before class, even if they haven’t yet engaged in the kind of deep thinking we’d like them to have done. There are ways to capitalize on this in section–particularly by creating a way for them to spend a bit more time with the readings without the fear that they’ll embarrass themselves in front of the instructor or their peers. I tend to break the section up into small groups and assign each group a different primary source or some aspect of a secondary reading (evidence, assumptions, counterarguments, etc.). I give them time to reacquaint themselves with and talk through the readings with their small groups, and then after awhile I ask the groups to reconvene and shine their respective discussions on our broader question for the day, which I have usually written on the board. By this point, most students feel prepared and confident enough to speak up. Walking around the room during small-group chat, ducking in and out of the several discussions, tends to improve this strategy–as does asking everybody in advance of the breakout chats to be sure they’re prepared to contribute to the general discussion that will follow.

    One last thing, actually: I really like your idea for the short written assignments, but I’d encourage you to make sure that you explicitly refer back to them, both when it comes time for the students to write longer papers and when you grade those papers. Students who haven’t written college-level history papers before will feel daunted by the task, and–believe it or not–many underclassmen and non-humanities majors, especially, will not have made the connection between your writing exercises and the work that the larger papers ask of them. By stating that connection plainly and then referring back to it in your written feedback, you’ll turn some of the grumbling into gratitude.

    • Sara Damiano says:

      You raise an important issue, Michael (Hattem), and my suggestions are very similar to Michael (Blaakman)’s first and second comments. On days when students are under-prepared, I also turn to group work and/or close reading of key passages. I’ll either select a rich quotation myself or ask students to choose one, and then we’ll dissect it as a class. Alternatively, for secondary sources, we’ll work through a set of very structured questions (re. argument, evidence, significance, etc), again examining key quotations throughout the discussion.

      Whereas lecturing or macro discussion can, to an extent, let students “off the hook” about a particular reading, text-centered activities have the advantage of teaching students how to read. Teaching reading strategies equips students to more effectively prepare for future class meetings, since, to again echo Michael Blaakman, slow discussions can reflect misguided or incomplete preparation rather than a total lack of preparation.

  5. Jennifer McLaren says:

    Michael, Great post. My answer is from a student’s perspective.
    I’m one of the students who usually does all the reading, and (at undergrad level) I used to find myself holding back from answering so I wouldn’t dominate (or appear to) dominate the discussions.
    The history department at my university have been trying various methods to ensure students complete tutorial reading – assessable weekly multi-choice quizzes, or a 10 minute short-answer essay question at the beginning of each tutorial, or having students engage with a weekly twitter question. I think the latter was less successful, but I appreciate the experimentation. It seems to have worked, and also has made students realise that doing the reading is important, and that the tutors take seriously whether or not students complete the reading.

  6. Great post! This year I was having uneven discussion among my freshmen, so I had them write out on a small piece of paper their goals for class discussion and how they could help themselves and each other achieve those goals. I then collected the cards, redistributed them, and had the students brainstorm about the goals/actions in small groups using the cards as a starting point. Then we got together as a whole class and discussed what people had said. This took a chunk of one class, but it helped to shift the focus by asking them to be responsible and also allowed them to come up with some strategies that were new to me. One was the idea of an “email buddy” with whom they exchange questions about the readings prior to class and send back a response. (They rotate buddies.) We often put those questions (sometimes raised by the buddy, sometimes by the question asker) up on the board at the beginning of class. This also helps even out the playing field for the quieter folk.

  7. […] my first year as a Teaching Fellow, I’ve done a number of pedagogy-related posts, covering student preparation, undergraduate writing, and lecturing. Having finished that first year, I have found myself […]

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