What's the Problem With Quiet Students? Anyone? Anyone?

Katherine Streeter for The Chronicle

September 05, 2010

We professors love to talk about quiet students: the men who slouch in the back row, hidden beneath their baseball caps; the women who smile congenially but never, ever raise their hands; the classes that leave us frustratedly channeling the hapless economics teacher in Ferris Bueller's Day Off as we plead in vain for student participation ("Anyone? Anyone?").

When I was a new composition instructor, getting students to talk was as important and as worrisome to me as helping them to improve their writing. I soon learned that professors have a whole vocabulary for explaining students' silence: They're unprepared, resistant, hostile, less intelligent, "absent."

I know that sometimes students are simply shy or bored or unprepared. But I also know that racism, sexism, and classism often work to silence some voices. And let's face it: Sometimes students are quiet because they have a bad teacher.

Those scenarios conflicted with the kind of student-centered, critical-learning, dialogical classroom I hoped to create. By reading gender and race studies, as well as composition, education, and postmodern theories about the "problem" of silence, I gained a greater understanding of the kinds of classrooms we want to create, and what can go wrong. But it wasn't enough: I still wanted to know why students sometimes speak in class and why, sometimes, they don't.

My colleagues' stories and the theory I was reading helped me understand how instructors see the "problem" of quiet students and fueled my sense that "getting them talking" preoccupied many of my colleagues. Even with my new interdisciplinary understanding of silence, I realized there was a crucial question that we weren't asking: What can quiet students tell us about classroom discussions and silence?

Through a yearlong study of a first-year composition class in which students periodically wrote about their experiences of classroom silence, followed by a series of interviews with five students who self-identified as "quiet," I explored what students themselves believe about speaking and silence. I discovered that students understand classroom discussion and silence quite differently than their instructors generally do. Students have complicated interpretations of the classroom that we rarely confront when we focus on "getting them talking." When I asked my students about their classroom experiences, I didn't hear the kinds of stories I expected to—complaints of boredom, confessions about being unprepared, angry litanies of alienation. Instead, in the hundreds of pages of reflections and 15 interviews, students explored their active choices to speak or to be quiet—choices that involve careful analysis of the professor, their classmates, and themselves.

The overwhelming majority of the students in my study understand speaking in class to be a high-stakes testing situation in which they are expected to provide a right answer. The more pressure a professor creates through grading class participation, the more complicated it becomes for students to speak. By observing an instructor—how she interacts with the class, the kinds of questions she asks, and how she responds to their voices—they determine whether they are expected, in general, to reflect, speculate, and hypothesize aloud or to perform on an oral quiz.

The students in the study also consider their self-images, their knowledge, and their comfort levels with criticism and confrontation in the classroom setting when deciding whether to speak or be silent. They understand that their classmates' opinions of them will be affected, if not formed, by the opinions they offer in class. And that makes speaking out a complex negotiation. Students know that their contributions to a discussion—say, ones that challenge another student, or that are misconstrued—on highly charged issues like affirmative action might irrevocably brand them as racists. They understand that what you say can easily become who you are.

That can be particularly problematic in writing classes, where students often read and respond to one another's work. The size of the discussion group, a lack of familiarity with other students, and the often unspoken rules about participating, including how frequently to speak, and how to achieve a balance between supportive, meaningful, and critical feedback, are among the factors students consider when deciding whether to speak or be silent. Ironically, some of those same issues—voice, identity, authority, and audience—are slippery concepts that writing instructors often struggle to teach effectively. Quiet students understand them in a visceral way and know that they are always being evaluated by their peers and their instructor, even in a student-centered classroom.

In this research, I was most surprised by what had been missing in my conversations with colleagues and had rarely emerged in all the reading I had done about student silence. It came down to this: Student silence isn't necessarily a problem. Some students choose silence because it best fits their learning style, culture, or history. Much contemporary pedagogy lauds the calls for "student voice" as empowering. But students who are, for example, visual learners, or whose home cultures have taught them to value speaking and silence differently than the contemporary culture of American higher education does, often benefit from the inclusion of silence in the curriculum. Recognizing that silence can be an active, generative space, those students agree with a small group of theorists who argue that silence can invite meditation, contemplation, and engagement. In other words, silence—along with dialogue—fosters learning.

To accept such a premise takes a leap of faith. It requires us to accept that quiet students bring important perspectives to the conversations we've been having about them, that requiring and grading student speech may be counterproductive to a critical education, and that we need to broaden our teaching strategies to serve the range of students in our classrooms. Some students are quiet because they are listening to others' views to integrate them into their own perspectives. Speech and contemplation may not happen simultaneously; those who don't come to the classroom already skilled in academic discourse need time and space to "translate" their thinking.

So have I given up trying to engage all my students in classroom discussions? Have I abandoned a commitment to understanding and resisting the ways that "difference" can be used to silence students? Hardly. But I have stopped automatically assuming that the silences in my classroom necessarily indicate failure. I work harder to communicate with my students about my expectations and theirs, particularly since for many students, my student-centered, dialogical classroom is the exception, not the rule, and the kinds of discussions—and silences—I invite may challenge what they think a classroom should look like.

Throughout my research, I resisted the kinds of easy answers that permeate our discussions about quiet students, and worked to understand students' views about speaking and silence. That led me to new principles that drive my teaching now, ones that help me in my efforts to create more-effective learning conditions for all students.

First, it is important to distinguish between learning—the real goal of the classroom—and speaking, which is but one means of achieving that goal. While my ideal student may be highly vocal, I need to respect my students' needs, boundaries, cultures, and histories as learners, which may make silence a productive space. To assist quiet students, and to teach vocal students important new modes of learning, I now make time for occasional silence in my classes by assigning in-class writing and building deliberate pauses for reflection into our discussions. And to foster listening, I ask my students to frame their comments in light of classmates' contributions.

Given that so many students in the study perceive classroom discussion to be a form of verbal testing rather than of constructing knowledge, I've become more explicit about my expectations and objectives. When I expect students to know the right answer, I make that clear. When my goal is the creation of knowledge, I strive to make that distinction clear as well, and ask genuinely open-ended questions to promote conversation in which ideas are exchanged, considered, and reformulated.

Altering the dynamics of discussions also creates additional opportunities for students to participate. Small groups, student-led discussions, and online discussion boards are a few strategies to invite more students' voices.

As a professor, I can often do more to facilitate student talk by saying less. Taking myself out of the center of classroom conversations and being mindful of my own participation can help students reimagine knowledge and the classroom.

Just as I work to facilitate student talk as a means of learning, I now also work to foster generative silences. Listening, introspection, and speculation are critical forms of class participation that must be both acknowledged and taught in the dialogical classroom.

Mary M. Reda is an associate professor of English at the City University of New York's College of Staten Island and author of Between Speaking and Silence: A Study of Quiet Students (SUNY Press, 2009).