One of my dearest friends used to refer to quiet classes as: “Teaching a classroom of potted plants.”
Sometimes classes just don’t want to talk. Up to a certain point, this is okay. It certainly is easier to manage a classroom if the students aren’t chatting with each other or interrupting the rest of the class. The problem is that a quiet classroom isn’t necessarily a healthy classroom.
Participation is one of those necessary ingredients for most students. It gives them a sense of control, it keeps them (and their fellows) alert, and it builds a positive classroom community. Students who are quiet even when it would be appropriate and welcome to participate in class usually fall into one of three categories: shy, confused, or bored.
Dealing with the shy:
Shy students often have a lot to say, but they are afraid to say it. The fears that keep them quiet are simple: they are afraid of their fellow students judging them, or they are afraid you might play “gotcha!” and jump on them for not knowing. One thing I like to emphasize is that everyone has questions sometimes, and that asking questions adds value to the whole class. The other comes back to maintaining a sense of patience with the students.
Dealing with the confused:
This brings us to when students just don’t get it. One technique that I’ve had good results with is by picking a student who looks confused, asking them to explain if they can, or to describe where they start to feel lost. I’ll go back to the beginning of the process, and walk through things a step at a time to get them to break down the problems.
One thing to keep in mind: it doesn’t matter if you have explained it before, or if it was in the reading… somehow the student (or students) didn’t connect with the material, and they will need to go over it again. Getting impatient it just going to alienate the class, so keep cool.
Dealing with the Bored:
Sometimes the class is really quiet, and it is because they are ahead. If it is just a few people who are ahead, see if you can either give them juicy projects or get them to help out some folks who are further behind. If the entire class is ahead, don’t hesitate to take things up a few notches. And… TELL THEM. You may be one of the only people who expresses pride in their academic work! That can really bring them together as a class, and get them to expect excellence from themselves.
So… there are my recipes for student participation. I admit, I sometimes dream about cattle prods for the non-participators, and gags for the overparticipators, but… I will use my powers for good and not evil.