Stray Thoughts on Awkward Silences in the Classroom

Among new teaching assistants, who in my department are tasked with leading Friday discussion sections, the single most common fear is of awkward silences. “What if I ask a question and no one says anything? What if I ask another, and they still don’t say anything?”

Awkward Silence

My accustomed response has been two-fold:

  1. Let the silence happen, and let it be super awkward. Know that research supports you. Look at your students, try to meet their averted gazes, offer small smiles of encouragement, and glance at your watch. Shrug good-naturedly: I’m old, I don’t care about awkwardness. But don’t speak up first. If you bail your students out once, they will expect you to bail them out again. Eventually someone will say something. Or ask you to repeat the question.
  2. Be confident in the clarity and answerability of your discussion prompts. This will give you a certain swagger during awkward silences: I know this is a good question. I know one of you can respond to it. So before each class spend some time scripting, down to the word, several of the most important questions you plan to ask your students. Do this even (or especially) if you don’t have time to design a full lesson plan.

I still endorse both of those methods (and others), but lately I have come to rely on on a third trick: building intentional, non-awkward silences into classroom discussions.

It’s simple. It requires exactly zero prep work. I say, “Okay everyone, in a few minutes I’ll ask you to discuss a question, but first I want you to think about it. Jot down a few notes, find evidence in your books, come up with something to say. So here’s the question: __________.”

Three minutes later: “All right, once again the question is: __________. What are your thoughts?”

I’ve used this process to jump-start many, many discussions, and the results have been conspicuous: richer debates, better support for claims, more frequent participation from shy, hesitant students.

Oh, and fewer awkward silences. Can’t say I miss them.

4 thoughts on “Stray Thoughts on Awkward Silences in the Classroom

  1. That’s a great idea! I could see even taking an egg timer into the classroom for it.
    I usually avoid the silences by telling students to discuss the question with the others at their table and come up with a consensus answer. Then I use the time to walk around and talk with each table about it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s