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Creating an Energizing Atmosphere for Class Discussion: Diminishing Awkward Silence and Blank Stares

Created Jun 19 2019, 11:11 AM by LIPPINCOTT NURSING EDUCATION

Amy M. Funk, PhD, RN-BC
Assistant Professor, School of Nursing
Illinois Wesleyan University

You’ve created a great plan for your upcoming course. Being mindful of the importance of class engagement, you’ve spent lots of time creating quality discussion questions.  You’ve strategically placed these questions throughout your lecture and group activities. Then the semester begins, and your first question is met with silence and blank stares. You stare at the students, and the students stare back. As the semester unfolds, engagement does not improve. Worse yet, at the end of the year, a student writes on your course evaluation, “Boring. Get the students more involved.” What can be done about this common situation?

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1. Create an atmosphere of safety.

When I first began teaching, I noticed many students looked around at other students when I asked a question. They seemed shy and nervous. I sensed they were afraid to be wrong. Noting this, I explained that students are not expected to have the correct answer. I said something like, “We are learning this content. I want you to use your critical thinking skills and your class preparation to answer questions, but I don’t expect you to be ‘right’ all the time. We are learning.” Additionally, while I built that sense of safety, I asked value-based and opinion questions. Then, I could honestly say, “There is NO right or wrong answer, just your personal opinion.”

What does this accomplish?

Personal opinion questions provide a low-stakes opportunity to engage.

From conversations with students, I was surprised how many students were afraid of being wrong. Worse yet, they were afraid wrong answers might be ridiculed by the professor or other students. On my course evaluations, several students expressed appreciation for the permission to be wrong. If students do not feel safe sharing and answering questions, participation will be difficult, if not impossible.

2. Accept wrong answers as part of the learning process.

Have you ever had a teacher that made an example of your incorrect answer? Or, a teacher that meant well, but lingered attention on you while s/he explained the errors of your answer? When I was a student, I loved to learn. I asked and answered a lot of questions from my knowledge base. I did not always have the correct line of thinking, because I still was learning. My favorite teachers would respect me as a person and my right to be wrong. I try to emulate this in my classroom. For example, if a student answers incorrectly, I try to release the student from the discussion before correcting the information. Making eye contact with the student, I say something like, “nice effort” or “thanks for contributing”. If the answer was partially correct, I acknowledge this aspect of the answer. Then, I move away from the student to address the correct answer to the class as a whole.

What does this accomplish?

Students witness what happens when a wrong answer is given in class. Students note that negative attention will not be placed on them for an extended length of time.

3. Give your own example or break down the question.

While you are creating that safe environment for your students, it helps to give an example of the answer you expect.  This is extra helpful if the students had a lot of readings for the day. It also can stimulate personal opinion questions by becoming vulnerable yourself. Stories from your past experiences will interest students.

If a broad question seems to be confusing or I see the class is not prepared, I break the issue down further. For example, if the question, “From your readings, can someone give me an example of incident command guidelines?”, is met with stony silence, I might say, “What about the term, ‘span of control’? What do you think of when you hear that term?”

What does this accomplish?

Examples help students focus and better understand the answer you are seeking.  Clarifying questions can clear up confusion about a broad topic.

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4. Assign a short reflection paper before class.

Last year, in my Public Health Nursing course, I tried something different. I assigned multiple, 2-page, 5-point reflection papers on engaging content. I purposefully selected short articles and videos to make an emotional connection. Students turned in the paper the day of class. The assignment was to describe the main points of the material (1-2 paragraphs) and write a personal reflection (3-4 paragraphs).

For example, when we discussed health care needs of the homeless, the students had knowledge content to read for the class. In addition to this content, the reflection assignment involved watching a video of interviews with individuals experiencing homelessness. A simple, “So, what did you think of the video?” brought 4-5 hands shooting into the air. They were engaged and prepared.

What does this accomplish?

Not only are students emotionally connected to the subject, but also students are thinking deeply about the course content for the day. They have a mental image of real people affected by the issues discussed.

5.  Allow for silence.

Mainstream America is a talkative culture. We really don’t like silence.  As you create that safe environment, remember that a few minutes of silence is okay. On one of my early evaluations, a student commented, “I like your questions, but you don’t give us time to answer.”

What does this accomplish?

As my student taught me, teachers need to give students time to think and gather courage to answer.

5. Address the reality of low energy days.

We all have those class sessions that no matter how we try, the students seem lifeless. Sometimes, I will acknowledge this with something like, “Wow, not much energy today.  Do you have something due in another class?”  Usually, students will share that they have a test or large paper due in the upcoming days. Sometimes, the culprit is burnout or an eagerly awaited, upcoming break. I allow a five-minute discussion of the issue at hand, and sometimes this is enough to engage the students. This is what they all have been thinking about (as I drone on in the background), and I have acknowledged it. Often, they can mentally join me for the rest of the class session. Sometimes, I will jokingly say something like “Can I borrow your brains for another hour?”

What does this accomplish?

If students are not listening, there is no point in talking. Acknowledging the reality of low energy can draw the students back to the class lecture and discussion.

 

 

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