Using Personal Stories to Engage Students in Conversation

Engaging students in class conversation is not always an easy task. Even though we may make class participation part of their final grade, stress its importance in the syllabus, and give subtle (and not so subtle) reminders of this throughout the semester, there are always days when students simply do not want to participate in the class discussions.

There are many reasons why students might not participate in class. Here are four situations where students remain silent, and strategies to positively engage them in conversation.

1) Students do not participate because it is Monday. As strange as it may sound, it’s been my experience that Monday classes tend to be the hardest in terms of getting students talking. The mood is different—and the next weekend seems a long way off. A way to turn this situation around is by looking at Mondays in a positive way. I try to be extra enthusiastic and engaging, so students see a positive person in the classroom on a Monday. Perhaps they’ll find the positive energy contagious. I also seat my students in a semicircle, so they can all see each other’s faces. This class configuration fosters ease of communication.

2) Students have not prepared for the class discussion. When this occurs, consider giving students 10-15 minutes to review what they should have prepared at home, and then seat them in groups where they can practice the conversation with classmates. Despite giving them this second chance at learning, you can let them know that this type of activity is not what you had intended for the class period, and next time they need to be prepared. It is better to improvise and salvage the class time than resort to a teacher monologue. Further, as someone who teaches Spanish, I remind students how important it is that we converse in every class.

3) Use personal experience and true personal stories to engage students (modeling). I am excited when students speak in their non-native language, but the topic we’re learning needs to be addressed as well. To avoid making students feel inadequate or like they do not know anything about the topic, I use my personal life as a model. This gives students true examples for the conversation, and that makes a difference. By opening up with real-life stories that relate to the conversation topic, I pique students’ attention and they talk more about their personal lives in the class conversation. They are more engaged and connect to each other. The modeling makes them feel more comfortable, and they cannot be wrong because they are talking about their own experiences.

4) Students do not feel the topic of the conversation is appealing to them. Imagine the topic for the conversation is “The Environment and Its Problems. Find Solutions.” Students have heard about the topic many times—the climatic changes that are happening, droughts, flooding, natural disasters, and pollution of rivers—and they simply do not find the topic appealing. What may be interesting to a geography major may not excite an English major. Infusing some personalization into the topic helps engage all students in the conversation, and makes it appealing to everybody. What are each student and the teacher currently doing to improve the environment problems? What else could be done? Ideally, the conversation should be prepared at home with specific examples to talk about. The teacher should begin the conversation with true personal stories by describing his/her recycling activities, efforts to go paperless, or decision to carpool. True personal stories related to the topic of the conversation are always appealing to students, as they learn that the teacher is a human being just like them. Through personal stories, the teacher connects with the students and students feel more comfortable to join in the class conversation.

Chita Espino-Bravo, PhD, is an assistant professor of Spanish at Fort Hays State University.