Are Your Students Talking in Class?

Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

Many of us use some form of class discussion in our teaching, likely with varying results. Sometimes class discussion is invigorating, with many students participating, making substantive contributions, and building on one another’s ideas. Other times, getting students to participate at all feels like pulling teeth, or we notice that although a lively discussion is happening, it only includes the three most talkative (or prepared) students.

Most of us expect students to participate in class by doing things like listening actively, taking notes, engaging in class discussions, completing in-class work, etc. Some of us even describewhat successful class participation includes in our syllabi. But what are students expecting to do during class time? How do they see their role in our classrooms?

In Discussion in the College Classroom, Jay Howard explains that faculty and students have very different ideas about students’ role in a course: Many students believe that their role is to pay what sociologists refer to as “civil attention,” which is creating the appearance of paying attention. If a student is looking at social media, shopping online, or having a whispered conversation about a football game, they are failing to pay civil attention. Most faculty and students can agree on that, so when students fail to pay civil attention, Howard says, they at least try to do so covertly. When they are paying civil attention, they tend to do some of these familiar behaviors:

In order to display civil attention a student needs to be facing the faculty member with his eyes open and making occasional, fleeting eye contact with the instructor. It’s important for our civil attention-paying student to make only fleeting eye contact because prolonged eye contact invites interaction, which could result in the student being called up to answer a question or provide a comment. Students also display civil attention by writing. As faculty, we assume they are taking notes on our erudite presentations. But they could be making a grocery list or merely doodling. Chuckling in response to the faculty member’s attempt to inject some levity into the lecture is also a way of demonstrating civil attention. Nodding of the head as the professor speaks is yet another. As long as students are demonstrating civil attention through these and similar behaviors, faculty members are generally willing to believe that they are actually paying attention and actively listening.  (pp. 17–18)

We might be surprised that students’ perceptions about what they should be doing in class differ so much from ours, but of course, their perceptions come from their experiences. Howard explains that faculty overreliance on lecture is a common contributing factor: If students’ role in most of their classes is passive, where only the instructor speaks, it’s easy to think that paying civil attention will be all that’s required in all classrooms. Then, if an instructor tries adding in some class discussion, students may be surprised and uncomfortable because they’re being asked to step out of their expected role. He also explains that some students believe that only the instructor has knowledge worth sharing; they may not see value in their peers (and their own!) contributions to class discussion. For example, they don’t necessarily see talking through their own reasoning or making their own connections as forms of learning. But they are.

Students’ expectation that their role is to pay civil attention is often what makes it so difficult to get them to actively engage. That’s why Howard says the first thing we have to do to improve class discussions is to “create a new norm.” We need to make it normal for students to actively participate in class: discussing ideas, making connections, doing in-class work, talking through their reasoning, etc. Here are several more of Howard’s tips for enhancing class discussion:

Learn students’ names. If your class size allows, learning students’ names, calling on them by name, and using their names to refer to their ideas and contributions later in the class session helps build rapport and encourage participation.

Respond with positive reinforcement. It is more difficult than we might imagine for most students to participate in class discussion, often because they’re afraid of feeling embarrassed. That’s why they value our thanks for their contributions, and other positive reinforcement, so much. Even if their understanding of a concept needs some further development, we can acknowledge that we truly value their willingness to share.

Allow students to formulate their thoughts. Often students need more time than we expect to process our questions before they can formulate a response they would want to share in front of peers. It can feel awkward for us to wait silently while they think, but if you practice tolerating the silence of “wait time,” it does get easier. Even better, you can ask students a question and then give them a few minutes to write down their thoughts before they share.

Ask the kinds of questions that encourage discussion. Howard explains that asking open-ended analytical questions encourages more discussion than asking close-ended factual questions. Asking students about their personal experiences or opinions can also help get them talking, especially at the beginning of a class. We can pose questions that prompt students to apply, interpret, compare, imagine, defend, or practice other forms of higher-order thinking, and we can make structured activities that guide them through these thinking processes in steps.

Design and facilitate structured activities. The absolute best advice we can give for encouraging class discussion that promotes learning and engagement for all students is to design in-class activities that include small-group or large-group discussion as a component. Even in a large class, it’s possible to facilitate activities that include discussion. For ideas about how to do this, you can look here or here, or read Discussion in the College Classroomor Learner-Centered Teaching by Terry Doyle, which are both available as free ebooks through FSU’s libraries.

Of course we are also very happy to help you design for great class discussions. You can contact us to set up a meeting by emailing We look forward to working with you!