When Students Don’t Answer a Question, What Does the Awkward Silence Mean?

Teacher: Anyone? Students: . . .!?

When students don’t answer, the awkward silence can feel homogeneously negative.

One balmy spring afternoon, I asked my students, “What is the difference between being a student and being a learner?” I hoped to start a lively discussion about the purposes of college. Instead, one or two students attempted an answer, while the others sat quietly in their seats, avoiding eye contact with me. The room filled with awkward silence: 5 seconds, 10 seconds, 20 seconds . . .

Whether I consciously think it or not, I often perceive this sort of silence as a sign that students are disinterested or disengaged (or even hostile). I imagine other teachers feel the same from time to time. Thankfully, we know that silence from students is no reason to panic. When a question falls flat, we have plenty of options,* including

  1. reframing the question (“What I mean is, what is your purpose in going to college?”),
  2. calling on students by name (“Shira, what do you think?”),
  3. asking a different, related question (“When you write an essay for a class, why do you do that?”),
  4. waiting longer (at least 30 seconds),
  5. asking students to write out their answers (“Pull out something to write with . . .”),
  6. asking students to discuss the question with someone sitting next to them (“Turn to your neighbor . . .”),
  7. coaching students on how to participate in discussion (“Don’t worry about answering correctly; tell us what you’re thinking and we’ll work from there”),
  8. moving on (“Well, it’s something to think about; we might come back to it later”),
  9. trying a different approach the next time (e.g. using a case or story to set up the question), and
  10. doing more in the future to establish the classroom as a safe, interactive place (e.g. helping students get to know one another better).

On this particular day, however, instead of simply ending the silence, I wanted to understand it. What does silence from students actually mean on any given occasion? To find out, I asked my students: “Pull out something to write with and something to write on. Tell me, why didn’t you answer the question I just asked? I’m curious.”**

I collected the responses and shuffled through them immediately. No one said they didn’t care. No one said they were bored. No one said they disliked me or the class or the question I had asked. Several said they didn’t speak up because they didn’t know the answer. Several confessed they were shy.*** One wasn’t paying attention. One considered listening wiser than speaking. And so forth. (Click here to see the actual responses [PDF].)

Teacher: Anyone? Students: Distracted, Shy, My answer was said already, Thinking, Listening, I don't know.

When I asked students why they didn’t answer, my perception of the silence shifted.

These responses gave me practical information to use moving forward. Some of the responses suggested that it might be helpful to guide the students more in how to participate in discussion. To those who didn’t know the answer, I might say, “That’s okay. There’s not one correct answer. Just think about it and give a guess.” To the one who was watching a video, I might say, “Consider how that hurts your (and your neighbor’s) learning.” And so on.

More importantly, hearing directly from students about why they didn’t answer shifted my own perception. The silence was neither homogeneous nor negative, as it may have initially felt. The students gave varied and (for the most part) reasonable reasons for why they didn’t speak up. A small epiphany. By simply pausing to ask, I came to better understand both the silence and the students.


*Among many resources available on teaching with questions, several that appear particularly useful and grounded in scholarship include William E. Cashin’s IDEA Paper (no. 31), Kenneth E. Vogler’s “Asking Good Questions,” The Teaching Center at Washington University in St. Louis’s “Asking Questions to Improve Learning,” and William F. McComas and Linda Abraham’s “Asking More Effective Questions.”

**This tactic, an ad hoc student survey, borrows from “muddiest point,” “minute paper,” and other classroom assessment techniques popularized by Thomas A. Angelo and K. Patricia Cross. This sort of activity shows how easy it can be to pause for a moment to gather information from students about any teaching situation. It is also informed by John Bean’s recommendation in Engaging Ideas: “When students run out of things to say . . . suspend the discussion and ask for several minutes of writing” (p 132). I thought that my new, meta question would not only give me information but also get students thinking for themselves about why they didn’t answer the question, which may prompt them to respond more readily to questions in the future (though I made sure to ask in an inquisitive rather than accusatory tone).

***Susan Cain and others have recently brought greater attention to the challenges introverts face and the contributions they can make.


8 responses to “When Students Don’t Answer a Question, What Does the Awkward Silence Mean?

  1. What a great experiment. The model of open plan questioning and answering in a lecture theatre where there is the (all powerful) lecturer and group of (all powerful) peers does lead to some ‘interesting’ results. Providing other methods of engagement – i.e. using online social media or other sites – that are visible to others in the room or capture differing views can lead to a more powerful result (Although I have had mixed results using fb as a medium for this).

    Elizabeth Mertz’s work (the langugage of law school) also provides some interesting insights into the profound effect some lecturing practices can have on students.

    As I work online most of the time, I find that you can lose your questions in the ether too (either on forums or on web conferences) and a whole lot of techniques are required in order to achieve real engagement – i.e. Ensuring that a real need for engagement is development (i.e. simulation of a practice environment that requires engagement to compete), putting yourself out there as a person to talk to, or, in a web conference environment creating a ‘relationship’ on a personal level early on before you launch into the ‘work’.

  2. Your stated expectation/intention was to initiate a discussion about the purposes of college, but your question is a very oblique way to initiate such a discussion. Your question implies an absolute — that there is a difference, and perhaps a single difference, between the identity of a student and the identity of a learner, and has nothing to do specifically with college. Would it not have been more effective to ask the students directly, “Can anyone identify or describe a purpose you may have for attending college?” and allow each student to explore that question on his or her own terms? Students in classes where this sort of question is discussed are usually in the early phase of their college activities and may not relate directly to the “college student” persona as readily as they do the “pre-college student” persona. If students don’t know much about their classmates, don’t know much about you as an instructor or don’t know much about your teaching style, this sort of question can be perceived as a “set-up” that forces someone to reveal information about themselves that they aren’t ready to share. The fact that you asked them to write down their responses after 20 seconds of silence did not shift their mindset about the question; it shifted the mechanism by which you got your answer.

    Next time you want to initiate a discussion about a topic, it might be more effective to ask the students to free-write about the explicit topic for ten minutes and then share some of their thoughts with their classmates to see if they share common ground with anyone else in the room. Once they find common ground, or perhaps realize that they are outliers, then they will probably be more inclined to discuss the topic in a large group. Good thing to remember: Each time you introduce a new topic, realize that the students have not been consciously considering that topic prior to your introduction of it. They need time to identify, analyze and evaluate the problem that has been put in front of them before they make a decision about it. To expect them to pop off an answer immediately shows little regard for their ability to think or the constraints of thinking in general.

  3. You could also offer a couple of alternatives as springboards to conversation. “Some people consider students…While others have said….What do you think, Jason?”

  4. That’s great! You can also get the students to hold a discussion in small groups and then have one representative from each group report their answers to the whole class, which will enable the students to take more participation in class and cultivate their team-work spirits.

  5. Pingback: Things Students Crave to Hear from Teachers·

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  7. I was once ridiculed by my teacher and my classmates because my answer was wrong. So I feel like I’d be putting myself in danger of ridicule once more if I answer again. Me answering or not answering doesn’t affect my understanding of the lessons. I could do just fine without the teacher to be honest. The textbooks and internet have never failed me. I believe one on one learning works better.

  8. Pingback: You Have Something to Say; Classroom Discussion Expectations – Working Together Well·

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