An Approach for Helping Quiet Students Find Their Voices

helping quiet students participate

“I’m afraid I’ll be the only one to think my thoughts, that no one else will see it the way I do. I don’t want to be wrong.”

That was the response by a student to a comment I made asking him to consider participating more in class discussions. The conversation took place one day after class toward the end of the 2017 spring semester when he asked me to sign an academic progress report. He was a good student and submitted quality papers on a timely basis. Yet, while he paid attention to my lectures and everyone’s remarks in class, he rarely spoke.

I told him how much I enjoyed reading his assignments, that they were creative and insightful. Although he seemed to appreciate the feedback, he said, “Still… it’s what the others might think.”

His words inspired me to develop, “Another Way to Say It, Another Way to See It.” The approach provides an opportunity for quieter students to express their thoughts and ideas with written contributions. I define quiet students as those who do not speak in class or who speak seldom and, when they do, they do so with great difficulty due to anxiety and/or lack of confidence.

I implemented the project during the fall 2017 semester in my face-to-face Introduction to Social Work class. Here are excerpts from the letter I posted online for students to read:

The Letter

“Have you ever been reluctant to share your thoughts in class? Are there times you wished you had weighed in on a class conversation but, for some reason, did not?

‘Freshman Year’ can be a little overwhelming and I know that some of you may experience anxiety when it comes to speaking in class. That’s why I’ve created this optional forum, a temporary way for you to ‘say it’ in writing until you develop enough confidence to ‘say it’ in class.

Please know I want to hear your thoughts, especially the ones you feel are unique. Don’t worry about being “wrong” or what others think. Share your insights. You may very well be onto something that no one else sees.

And… what could be better than that?”

The Reactions

After discussing what I had posted online, I asked the students to submit a two-paragraph reaction to the idea. Here are some of their comments:

“I have social anxiety and every time I talk in front of a group of people, my face gets red and I start to stutter. I think this program will help me to begin feeling more comfortable expressing my ideas to the rest of the class.”

“Typically, in school, I’ve always been the kid who mumbles the right answer under her breath and waits for someone else to say it out loud. I’m not very confident in classroom settings. Having an outlet to type my thoughts rather than attempting to speak them in a jumbled mess is something I appreciate.”

“I am shy to ask questions, sometimes, because it could be embarrassing. It’s a very judgmental world and this is a good way to help those less confident feel better about expressing themselves.”

The Posts

At the end of the fall 2017 semester, there were 43 comments posted in the forums tool. Nine of 27 students contributed to the forum. Here are excerpts from posts after a class discussion about living conditions on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, approximately 50 miles from Chadron State College:

“I am filled with such heartbreak anytime I go to the reservation. I am obviously white but have never had thoughts of being better.”

“I understand how you feel concerning ‘the rez.’ It causes an aching heart to drive through it, to see hopelessness on the faces of those who survive the place.”

“What we don’t realize is that these conditions are in our own backyard.”

Value of the Project

Each of the quiet students who contributed to the forum eventually spoke in class and, each time they did, they did so with growing confidence. One student spoke for the first time in Week 10 and several times thereafter.

In a general class discussion about the value of the project, several quiet, forum-contributing students stated that they found it useful and would like to continue writing (and speaking) in the spring semester. Of the quiet students who did not contribute to the forum, several said they would consider trying it in the spring semester. Their reasons for not posting ranged from being “too busy” to “not knowing what to write.”

What’s Next

Encouraged by the students’ responses to the project. I plan to offer the program again in the spring 2018 semester. For those students who responded with “too busy,” I will continue to plug the program in class, using the opportunity to discuss effective ways of managing one’s time.

I will also offer specific examples of the types of posts they can write in hopes of motivating those who responded with “not knowing what to write.”

As one student said, “The forum allows you to get your side of the topic out there. And that can be helpful for everyone.”

Rich H. Kenney, Jr., is an associate professor and director of the social work program at Chadron State College, Nebraska.