Walking the Tightrope of Interaction

The long pause—we’ve all waited an eternity in our classrooms hoping for just one student to respond to our questions. Articles and advice from tenured faculty are abundant about the value of the long pause. If we wait long enough, they will respond. And sometimes they do, with a disappointing answer, leaving you hanging in the middle of a failing classroom discussion. Or we sometimes get one student who responds and responds and responds. Classroom interaction and discussion is a balancing act that can perplex even the most seasoned faculty member. However, it can be managed.

Rather than depend on that long pause to provide you with a golden nugget of information, try varying your questioning methods. Many students are terrified to speak in class; they worry about embarrassing themselves or providing incorrect information. This semester, start your classes out with easy, confidence-building questions. These questions can be opinion based, brief factual quizzing from the text, or yes or no questions. Ask questions that are low stakes and provide each student with a chance to respond. Early on establish an expectation that students will comment in class and encourage their responses.

Acknowledge each student response. Walk toward him or her, make eye contact, and compliment well thought-out answers. Then walk away from the student to indicate his or her time is up. Use your classroom position to control responses. Discussion-monopolizing students can be controlled by asking for group responses, limiting responses to three sentences, or calling on individual students. Compare classroom discussions to business meetings and memos. No one reads a four page memo, but almost everyone will read a brief one. Encourage and reward concise responses. Relating this classroom skill to a workplace skill can help you curtail long responses and encourage shy students.

And when all else fails, use the long pause.

Sherri Singer, Adjunct Institute Coordinator and Department Head
Alamance Community College