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?”
My accustomed response has been two-fold:
- 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.
- 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.
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.