32 Listening for Silences

A photo of Beth Brunk-Chavez
Figure 32.1: Beth Brunk-Chavez

Beth Brunk-Chavez

What happens when you ask a question of a class full of students, and . . . no . . . one . . . answers? You look around the room to find that all eyes are averted from your gaze. “If I make eye contact with her,” they think, “she will surely call on me to answer that question.” Some of us may be perfectly fine waiting for a response, asking the question in another way. But many of us, I suspect, would prefer to fill up that silence with answers.

Putting aside our own discomfort with silence, we wonder what could be happening here. It’s possible that students need a few moments to process a response to your brilliant, thought-provoking question. It’s possible that they simply aren’t prepared to answer. It is also possible that your question was, well, not a good question. And then what happens if we jump in and answer it for them? What message does that send?

Learn to be comfortable with silences yourself.

Over the years, I’ve found a number of ways to either structure a less silent class or be comfortable with silence. Asking students to do more than read the textbook or articles before class is one good solution. Ask them to write a response to the reading, to participate on a discussion board, or to work in small groups before a larger class discussion. All of these activities help students think through the content before you pose those thought-provoking queries. When students have had a chance to think through some ideas and articulate them in other ways, they may then feel more comfortable sharing with the larger group.

Additionally, learn to be comfortable with silences yourself. Tell the students, “I’m going to let you think about that.” Then count to ten slowly. Take a few sips of coffee and move around the room a bit. Pose the question again, and then see what they come up with.

Silences can be telling. That’s true in relationships, in politics, and in teaching. Learning to listen carefully to the silences – and noticing when they occur – will help us move beyond frustration and discomfort. It will assist us in figuring out the best way to help students think deeply and articulate their thoughts.

A photo of UT Austin campus with overlayed text reading, "Teaching makes you young, but grading makes you old."
Figure 32.2: UT Austin
A photo Sophia Andres
Figure 32.3: Sophia Andres


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