Making Space for “Quiet Students”

I think the first thing that should be said about dealing with “quiet students” is that we need to stop thinking of them as just quiet or shy, and then assuming that this behavior can and should be “fixed.” Not all quiet students are simply shy. Some of them have anxiety disorders. Others are autistic. And many more have medical conditions that interfere with their ability to concentrate and strip them of the energy required for them to feel comfortable engaging in a debate – in many cases, it might not even be the condition itself that is causing problems, but the medication the student has been prescribed to treat it.

Moreover – and I’ve written elsewhere about how my views on this subject have recently changed –collectively, we need to be more understanding of the contemplative space that some students require. Confidence can be great, but we need to be careful not to encourage modes of behavior that allow one individual to flourish at the expense of others.  The babbly folk (and I am totally guilty of being this person myself) need to learn to shut up and listen from time to time just as much as the quiet people have to learn to speak up. By exerting our authority at any given moment, we lay claim to an abstract space in a way that implicitly undermines the ability of others to make similar claims. Thus, it is important that we emphasize learning how to really listen, and how to share these abstract spaces, and not stop blindly encouraging our students to raise their voices.

Creating the right atmosphere for a really stimulating and inclusive intellectual discussion is therefore really hard, and it’s something I’m still working through. Of course, I use a few obvious tools in order to make students feel more comfortable. These include icebreakers on the first day, think-pair-share exercises, the opportunity to produce written work if talking really is just too intimidating, and my ceaseless demand for a respectful environment. But there’s also a few other things I do in order to make space for students who otherwise cannot bring themselves to speak. Here are a few of my favourites.


[Take the time to type up some written feedback]


1.  Providing Written Feedback
Students will be the first to tell you that participation grades are highly subjective and thus unfair. So I provide written feedback halfway through the semester – complete with a tentative grade – partly to make sure that we’re on the same page and to provide students with the opportunity to complain before all is said and done.  However, doing this also has the merit of encouraging students who are floundering to do something about it. Those who receive poor participation grades are invited to come and see me and/or take advantage of my offer that they can do written work and to turn their grade around. Many of them do indeed come to my office hours as a result, and that’s when students volunteer information about their particular needs. Some are desperately trying to overcome their fears and want my help. A few, for whatever reason, simply can’t. And the vast majority of them are somewhere in between: they are willing to experiment but haven’t yet made up their minds about this whole public speaking thing.

2. Offer to Call on them Instead of Asking them to Raise their Hands
For some students who have difficulty speaking in front of a group, the problem is one of confidence. These students will never raise their hands, even if they know the answer, because they assume that they are wrong. Thus, it can sometimes be useful to call on students instead of waiting for them to volunteer. That said, for the love of all that’s holy, please, please, please check with students that this is OK before doing it! Otherwise it can seem like you’re picking on a particular demographic and trying to make them look stupid in front of their peers.

I make a habit of doing this in my seminars, and so I start every course I teach off with a speech about how I do this in order to invite people to participate, and I’m not trying to call anyone out. If someone is uncomfortable answering, they always have the option of just saying “pass.” After I’ve explained myself in this way, I just go right ahead and randomly call on different students from time to time. I also occasionally pose difficult questions about divisive subject matter, and then go around the room letting everyone offer their opinion. This is a great introduction to difficult topics, and usually primes the group for a good discussion.

3.  Script an Exchange
For those students who really want to learn to speak in public, or those who are still open minded about giving it a try, this can be a great option. I simply tell them to pick something about the reading that they’re really interested in and email me about it in advance. We then set up a question about that material which we both agree on. And then on game day, when the time comes, that student feels more comfortable because they’ve prepared what they’re going to say. Furthermore, they have had their thoughts “vetted” in advance by the instructor, and this removes a lot of anxiety about looking stupid. Finally, it allows the student in question to act as a specialist in one area, and then step back.

This may seem problematic because it discourages public engagement with the rest of the material. But it has been my experience that students who choose this option read all the assigned material quite thoroughly in order to be able to discern what passages best align with their interests. Thus, even if they aren’t showing it on the day of the seminar, these students have invested quite a lot of time and energy considering the material, and it is easy to get a sense of how much through the private conversations one has while writing the “script.”


[I know, it seems cheesy, but it works]


 4.  Offer a Variety of Different Formats
A lot of students find seminars where the whole group sits around a table talking to be the most difficult – especially as seminar size continues to increase. They do better when you break them into pairs, small groups, or even teams. And since everyone has different skills, each student will respond to these activities differently, which is why I try to mix it up as much as possible. I try to have an equal number of days where they work in pairs, small groups, and teams. In each case, they come back to the large table at the end, but I assess their participation based on their work in smaller groups as well. Whether I ask students to answer a question, create questions, or debate an issue, the time away from the large table gives many of them space to speak more freely because the stakes are lower.

When you do this, try to think outside the box! One of the most interesting revelations I had last year was that there is a particular subset of quiet students for whom team leadership is actually a great role. These are people who would never claim authority themselves, but when it’s delegated to them, they flourish. Since their role is one of facilitation, they are not being asked to showcase their own ideas, but rather to help consolidate and organize ideas the ideas produced by others. It’s a very specific kind of quiet person who will like this role, but you do occasionally find them.


As I said, this is hardly a comprehensive list, but it does include my favourite strategies. As always, I’m curious to know what my readers would add, so please leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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