What to Do When Students Want to Talk in Class

Three students sitting at desks with their hands raised


Rachel Schneider

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I’ve been feeling very invigorated this semester as a teacher for several reasons: I’m teaching RHE 309S for the first time, incorporating more digital writing and texts into my syllabus, and the kids I’m teaching seem pretty invested in the material. In fact, they love to talk in class. Managing the class discussions, then, has presented a new challenge for me as a teacher.

Like my colleague Steven, I’m much more familiar with the problem of getting reluctant students to participate in discussion. As such, I’ve figured out how to use my particular exuberant energy to crack jokes, to present the material in a non-threatening manner, to encourage students to feel comfortable participating (and how to learn everyone’s name so you can call on them in to spread the talking around). Teaching my RHE 309S for the Liberal Arts Honors program has significantly changed the dynamic, however. Whereas in most classes you’re lucky to have about two students who talk on a regular basis, right now about ten of my twenty-one students participate in every class, and about fifteen raise their hands at least once a week. It’s the stragglers who are more noticeable at this point than the talkers.

While this might seem like an embarrassment of riches or a straight #humblebrag, I’ve had some surprisingly challenging moments: for example, at one point during a discussion of stasis theory not only was I fielding some pretty challenging questions, I had two students arguing during a stasis analysis of the same-sex marriage debate about whether or not law should be determined by religious morality. The conversation got so tense that I had to raise my voice and shout “HEY!” to end the debate, and one of the other students approached me after the class to talk about how uncomfortable the tension made her feel. This kind of rough-and-ready exchange provides both some nice intellectual charge and an uncomfortable dynamic: how do you monitor classroom discussion when everybody wants to have a say? Does that mean that you have to let everyone talk equally? How do you encourage silent students to participate when others are eager to speak, or is that even advisable? What is the balance between leading the discussion and letting the discussion be student-centered? And how far do you try to balance the contributors?

The nice thing about this situation was that it led me to consult with experienced instructors to hear their reflections and advice. One professor recommended turning this argument into a teachable moment that could connect back to the previous lesson—what makes rhetoric and stasis so important is how it provides the means to have productive debate on important issues. Another suggested I connect the situation to a discussion about where rhetoric takes place: it rarely happens in polite, controlled circumstances and people don’t always adhere to the rules. Others recommended that I talk about appropriate classroom behavior or even gamify it. I was even told that to handle honors students, I should alternate between catering to their sense of themselves “special snowflakes” and attempting to “melt” it. I loved that each response helped attend to a different aspect of the problem: accommodating the egos in play, creating the rules of interaction for classroom discussion, and connecting the rhetorical material to the ways in which discuss rhetoric.

Since then, I’ve adopted several different strategies to help lead successful discussion among students. I ended up following the advice about addressing it as a teachable moment, and tried to make my questions explicit to the students in order to invite them to help provide the answers. I’ve also since tried to intervene to frame the goals for discussion and to keep them on topic by asking them to cite examples from the text. To organize the conversations, I occasionally clarify what I see emerging from the discussion as a way to help redirect at various points. Like Steven, I’ve tried to provide opportunities for students to do short writing exercises at the beginning of class to allow the other students to come up with contributions, deliberately framing them in this way, as well as just calling on students occasionally when a rare silent moment presents itself. I’m cautious in some ways too in how gender dynamics are playing out—it seems like while of these ten most talkative students seven of them are women, the three male students tend to talk back and forth to each other for extended periods. I try to recognize and affirm positive contributions and try to intervene more directly to keep the conversations related to the day’s topic. While I hope I show my students that I value their interests and directions, I also try to find ways to encourage a variety of students to respond to make the conversations not only more lively but also more inclusive. I can only hope that my students will help teach me how to make the class discussion productive for them all.


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