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Monday, September 8, 2008

Filling in the silence

As a new teacher, one of the first things I learned was the value of shutting up. My own classroom style has always included asking a lot of questions, even fairly obvious ones, to make sure that students are with me. But if you're going to ask questions, you have to get comfortable with letting there be silence and just waiting for an answer. Most students will never answer if they think they don't have to so they sit and wait, either for someone else to answer or for the teacher to give up and move on. So I've gotten fairly used to waiting them out and it usually works.

But today I re-discovered how uncomfortable silence can be. I don't know if it's a glitch in the new version of the clicker software or what, but after students have answered a question with their clickers, the computer takes quite a while to process the data and let me return to my regular slides. This happened to a lesser degree last year (and with 300-400 responses, I don't expect the system to be lightening fast) but the wait time is longer this year. Uncomfortably long. Too long for me to just stand there and wait for it to process. This is not good. The silence is happening after students have submitted answers, but before their responses are shown, so I can't really fill the time by asking if students have any questions about the material (since they are waiting to see if they got the answer right or not). In the past, I have waited to see what their responses look like before talking about the answer because I use the answer distribution to decide whether to move on or not (i.e., if 98% of the class got it right, I don't spend any time talking about why the other answers are wrong; if only 30% got it right, I have them confer with a neighbor and then re-ask the question). So now I need to figure out how I'm going to fill that time. One option is to ask for a volunteer to say how they answered the question and explain why they think that's right. Another is to forget about using the answer distribution, just tell them what the right answer is and get on with the explanations. I could also just let there be silence, tell students that while we wait for the system, they should be reviewing their notes, making sure they ask questions about anything that isn't clear or they want me to repeat. If anyone out there has thoughts or suggestions about this, please feel free to leave them in the comments!

Related posts:
Clickers are not the enemy (yes, I still believe this!)
How much technology and social media is 'too much'?


  1. About 10 years ago, I heard that in one large-lecture intro science class, the faculty member had students answer a multiple-choice question about every 20 minutes (which would be tabulated), turn to a classmate and try to convince the classmate that her or his answer was right, and then come back to the same question again and make a SECOND choice, which could be the same as the first or different. If I remember the study correctly (and, yes, at that time this was a wealthy private university that could install the input devices in every seat), that simple "talk to your neighbor about this problem" step dramatically increased correct answers for the second time 'round.

    Of course, a SECOND tabulation through the clickers would still leave you with wait time, but you COULD have the class answer the second round by a show of hands, either going through the questions (and seeing if the distribution changed, just roughly) or by asking who had changed their minds.

    No, I don't remember the study, though I wish I did!

  2. Thanks Sherman - this is exactly what I try to do in cases where the students' answers are all over the place. My understanding is that this used a lot in physics classes and economists have been trying to learn from the physics folks. I don't use it with every question because it seems unnecessary if the vast majority of students already grasp the concept, which is why I usually wait until I see the answer distribution to the question the first time around. But you're right that in cases where I'm pretty sure the students will need more explanation, I could have them start talking to each other before showing their answers.

  3. You should do both!!!! You should answer the question and let the students do it. They will get both sides of the answer. whait if you just call on someone?


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