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Teaching Strategies to Get Student Response

Jordan Catapano

It happens all the time. The teacher is talking, sharing interesting information, and using teaching strategies about a new topic. The students pay attention, scribble notes, nod heads. Then the teacher asks a question. An awkward silence follows, and then the teacher ends up answering her own question and moving on. Even though teachers may want to get more student interaction and participation, it can be difficult to use teaching strategies to facilitate in a group setting. While sharing direct information with students has its benefits, student understanding and retention of that information is enhanced when they have a chance to express their thinking along the way.

Teaching Strategies: Why Classes Are Quiet

There are a variety of reasons why teachers may have “A quiet class.” If teachers had to choose, many of them would prefer a quiet group to a noisy one. There are so many techniques and tips out there on how to quiet down a rambunctious room. Yet classes with quiet dispositions present lost opportunities for learning too.

Here are a few reasons why a class may be less likely to pipe up and interact during a lesson.

Students don’t know one another or the teacher. Sometimes it just comes down to how well students know one another. If you’re in a room full of strangers, it’s likely you’ll be quiet too. The less opportunity there is for students to get to know one another – including getting to know the teacher – the less likely they may be to interact during instructional times.

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Students are tired. For whatever reason, you may have a set of students coming into the room who would prefer to still be in bed at the moment. This is especially true in the morning, when students claim they are still “Waking up.” This isn’t just students making a poor excuse; the National Sleep Foundation points to sleep deprivation as a major health concern for teens and advocates for later school start times.

Students are bored. Low engagement leads to low response. Would you jubilantly participate in an activity you saw zero value in? Students are unlikely to wake up excited about what they’re learning that day, but they are more likely to become invested when the lesson is structured in a way to engage them.

Students don’t understand. When a concept is complicated, beyond students’ realm of familiarity, or just too frustrating, students will recoil from participating. They are unlikely to put their thoughts out there into the classroom when they feel they don’t currently have sufficient understanding to even engage openly with the content.

Students are not expected to speak. There are expectations, either explicit or implied, set by the teacher regarding student participation. Even if the teacher wants students to participate, the manner in which class discourse is facilitated can backfire and insufficiently provide the right environment where otherwise willing students feel comfortable sharing.

These are a few reasons I’ve experienced why some classes may tend to be more quiet. I don’t think any of these reasons justifies a quiet room, but it is important to look into some of the causes. What other reasons might you add that contribute to a lack of engagement and response from students?

7 Ideas for Eliciting More Response

Blank stares are the enemy of collaboration and learning. The lights may be on, but is anyone home? Here are some basic ideas for helping students get more responsive during instructional times.

  1. Let students know what’s expected. I always encourage teachers to be up front with their expectations. Tell students directly that while they’re learning, you expect them to do X, Y, or Z. Make your expectations are clear from the beginning and consistently apply them, so students understand what is standard of response you are holding them to in any given situation. The real test will be when you try to enforce your expectations – will you hold students to your standard, or capitulate to their demeanor?
  2. Wait Time. If there’s one thing I preach consistently, it’s the power of Wait Time. Wait Time is simply waiting long enough after you ask a question to give students time to think and respond. If a teacher asks for a response, but gives no time for students to process the request, of course they’re not going to get much input. If teachers call on the very first hand that is raised (and if that hand belongs to same student over and over again), then everyone else is “Off the hook” and it is tacitly communicated they need not respond.
  3. Randomly call on students. Used wisely, this method can help assure all students are consistently thinking through and the material. Calling on students at random puts them “On the spot” and forces them to think and respond when they otherwise wouldn’t. At times I let more reserved students know in advance I’ll be calling on them – “Just so you know, I’m going to call on you … have an answer ready please!”
  4. Have students turn and talk to one another. Students might not be comfortable sharing their thinking in front of a larger group, yet. But they could at least start with sharing their thinking with one person. Give students concrete instructions about what to share with one another, and after they share with one person, they may be more prepared to share the same thought with the larger group.
  5. Have students demonstrate and explain their work to the class. Why should teachers do all the explaining? If you’re asking students to engage in a specific task, invite them to “Take the chalk” and walk classmates through their thinking. In a math class, for example, you might ask a student to share their answer … but then ask that student to explain their process to the class for arriving at that answer.
  6. Ask “Who got X?” and “Who got Y?” Instead of asking students to raise their hand and share their answers one by one, you can ask more general questions that give all students an opportunity to respond. If you ask a yes or no question, for example, ask the whole class “Who thinks Yes?” and have them raise their hands. Then ask “Who thinks No?” and you can then call on students who raised their hands to explain their diverging thinking to one another.
  7. Make it physical. Students sit for long periods of time and their bodies will naturally respond to this position by making them tired and disengaged. Change things up by having students stand and work as much physically as mentally. How can you merge student movement with the content of your lesson? When you do so, the physical activity will energize their brains and fuel more meaningful responses.

Our goal is not merely to “Get students to talk.” Talking, responding, thinking, engaging, collaborating … these are all tools for learning. When we are facilitating large group instruction and want students leverage these tools, we can apply the tips mentioned above. Talking is a sign of learning, and it also helps to broaden the input and lets students know their voices matter to the learning taking place.

No matter the reason for your “Quiet classroom,” there are opportunities to help draw out students’ ideas and responses. Consider what your next steps will be to establish this as an expectation and let students know their perspectives and input matters!

What teaching strategies do you use to help your quiet classes get more responsive? Share your perspectives with your fellow teachers by leaving a comment below!


Jordan Catapano taught English for 12 years in a Chicago suburban high school, where he is now an Assistant Principal. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.