At the beginning of each academic year, I have to relearn the same lesson: enduring the awkward silence after a question has been asked. At the start of my career this “skill” seemed unendurable. It felt far easier to fill the empty void of fifty or seventy-five minutes—or God forbid, two and a half hours—with the sound of my own voice and well chosen words recorded on paper. After all, students are conditioned to expect that of my guild. Yet as I began to take more seriously the need to create learner-centered classroom experiences, one of the first steps to achieve that goal proved to be silencing my own voice, and waiting for students to find theirs.
Whether it is a classroom of first year undergraduates or PhD students, helping students find an entry into the learning experience is key to their ownership of the semester’s project. If I start the semester by stating what I plan to accomplish and march them through the details of the syllabus as the first exercise of the course, it sets a tone for the semester that may be hard to reverse.
Well-crafted questions are crucial in reorienting the structure of the classroom experience. Even in a required (and often dreaded) course, like Theological Foundations (THEO-1000), asking students why they are taking the course gets an awkward truth out in the open: most students do not want to be there. Once that uncomfortable reality is normalized, I can follow it up by asking: “Since you are required to take this course, what do you hope to get out of it?” As we compile a list of possible opportunities to learn on the board, I can start affirming their interests, and confirming that these will be reflected in different parts of the semester. Students begin to own parts of the content of the course, even before they see the syllabus. With other well-chosen questions, students often come to realize that they have interests in the subject they had not previously realized, and may even be attracted to questions raised by others. Students can then work through the syllabus at the end of the first class, feeling a sense of ownership that they did not have when they entered the room. If this pattern is repeated in subsequent classes, students discover that their voices matter, and they engage in more dynamic ways with the material being taught.
Yet asking questions is not enough. Learning to endure the awkward silence has proven to be the greater challenge. When I first started doing this, ten seconds could feel like an hour. Students would avoid my gaze for fear of being called on. Yet slowly it became clear to me that students needed to process the question and formulate their thoughts. If I waited long enough, even the most timid and reluctant student might find an occasion to contribute to the class. Sometimes I joke about the silence to relieve any tension. At other times the best approach is to reframe the question, restating it in different words as students continue to think. But waiting for students to find their voice is crucial.
As I have grown more comfortable with this style of instruction, a different dynamic has emerged in the classroom. Student questions have ceased being about repeating a line from my lecture notes or whether a term will be on the test, and instead has focused on concepts being discussed and how to apply the subject at hand. Students leave my courses retaining key concepts … often years later. But far more important for a life of learning, students have reported that mutual respect is fostered and a genuine interest in the thoughts of others is nurtured. We learn from one another, and that builds relationships. But this ethos starts with the instructor asking well-crafted questions and enduring the awkward silence, in order to create spaces where learning can happen.
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