Using Questions to Conquer Fear

question-mark-96285_1280For some students there is nothing that inspires more abject fear than participating in a class discussion.

You can almost predict the sequence of events…

The discussion starts. There is a mad rush for attention. Students obsessed with earning participation points shoot their hands up. Others wait back a little and contribute a few ideas here and there.  Some talk constantly just to be heard; others simply repeat what’s already been said.

And then there’s your quiet students…

They have been listening all along but can’t seem to bring themselves to jump in. From your previous experiences with them and review of their work, you know that they have really good ideas which could take the discussion to interesting places.

But they don’t say anything. Worse, they rush up to you after the discussion is over to share what they planned to say but didn’t.

This is one of those frustrations of teaching that never seems to go away. Instead, the frustration just seems to fluctuate in intensity from class to class, year to year.

Over the years, I’ve offered my share of accommodations by allowing silent students to write reflections during and after the discussion is over to enhance their participation grade. I have my inspirational one-on-one talks about the value of listening and being patient. These are all good and work really well but in the back of my mind I find myself chanting “Would you just please say something every once in a while?!”

This year I tried something slightly different.

Early results are in and I think it’s working.

I’m pulling silent students aside a day before a discussion and telling them to formulate and share at least ONE question. Now I’ve always encouraged questions but I’ve never been intentional about targeting quiet students before a discussion.  That is the subtle and important difference here.

I’m not just advising them to formulate any sort of question– but one that demonstrates careful thought and moves the discussion into interesting, uncharted territory.  I have to be delicate here since I don’t want them to send the class down an irrelevant tangent with the question. It has to be relevant and connected to the topic at hand.  Because of this requirement, I suggest preparing several questions for backup.

The goal is to convince students that asking a question when you don’t know something erodes fear.  After all, what’s there to be afraid about?  You can’t be wrong!

This is a huge shift in thinking.

I tried it last week in an AP government discussion on campaign marketing and branding. A few quiet students waited patiently until about the middle of the discussion before offering up their questions. A few were a little off topic but others were spot on.  The pressure was off!

I made it a point as the discussion closed down to recognize these students for having participated in a meaningful way. I described in detail how the student question showed an understanding of the content and also how it brought a renewed interest in the topic through exploration of a different line of thinking.

A simple two-step process:

1. Converse with quiet students before discussion and invite them to ask a question or two

2. Recognize students at the end and narrate in detail why the question was important to the overall quality of the discussion.

3. Repeat steps 1 and 2

Fear is the enemy of learning. Why not use the power of questions to tackle fear head on?

What strategies do you use to get silent students contributing to class discussion?


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