December 11th, 2008

Silent Participators

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Do students have the right to remain silent in class? I continue to struggle with that question. It definitely depends on the course. If you want to learn French, you really can’t do that without speaking. But what about history or environmental biology?

I was interested to read a qualitative research article that analyzes interviews with four students in a problem-based learning (PBL) course who mostly remained silent in their small groups. The article opens with observations about how participation is becoming expected of students and how it functions as an integral part of approaches like PBL. Student who don’t participate are seen as problematic. The practitioner literature is full of strategies and approaches teachers can use to facilitate participation, be it in small groups or the larger class. The authors raise a note of caution: “We need to establish if silence denotes failure to learn or simply another way of learning in the dialogic classroom.”

They make several valid points. First, if the pressure to participate is strong, students may be focused on the need to contribute at the expense of coming to grips with the material. That kind of pressure generates talk for the sake of talk. They also point out that verbally confident students may participate a lot and be rewarded for doing so, but they may be making contributions minus any new learning. They may be contributing what they already know or repeating the comments made by others. Most importantly, interviews with the four silent students caused the authors to distinguish even more sharply between talk and learning. Conversations with the four interviewees revealed that each of them had learned a lot in the discussions which they “participated” in silently.

The authors challenge teachers to carefully consider goals. Is the point of a PBL experience (or some other group activity) to develop verbal communication skills or is it to develop a new and deeper understanding of course content? The answer might be both, but even if it is, instructors need to be sure that they are not favoring the participation objective over the mastery of material goal.

Work like this reminds us that active, engaged listeners play an important role in every group. Students struggling to express course concepts, to use the language of the discipline, to answer challenging questions are helped when someone in the group is listening and supporting their attempts to articulate new ideas. Perhaps our definitions of participation need to be enlarged so that those who participate silently get credit for helping to make the group a place that encourages everyone, including them, to share thoughts, ideas, questions, and reactions.

Reference: Remedios, L., Clarke, D., and Hawthorne, L. (2008). The silent participant in small group collaborative learning contexts. Active Learning in Higher Education, 9 (3), 201-216.

—Maryellen Weimer