Let’s talk about it

Encouraging students to talk in large lecture rooms, or engage online, can be a challenge. Whether it’s answering one of your questions, or communicating with others about statistical concepts and ideas, silence can be hard to break. In this post I’ll provide you with some tips on how to get those conversational juices flowing!

Most of us have been there, asking question after question to a room (or computer screen!) full of student’s, blank looks (or no responses online) as if you’re speaking a completely different language. The whole experience feels barren and desolate, like the surface of mars. Is it the case that no one knows the answer to your questions? Are they too difficult?. Are the students too afraid to answer because they think it’s going to be a right or wrong type situation, so they would rather keep quiet? How do I know what the problem is? 

The truth is, it could be all or none of these reasons. So how can I encourage my students to participate more, you might ask? The main approach I take is to try and create a learning environment that is friendly and safe, where participation is rewarded, and students can see the value of actively engaging with the content you create. Easier said than done right?! 

Since many of us are now delivering our classes online or in a remote learning mode, my tips will focus on this. Some of them can be adapted for in person teaching, however I will save this for a future post, being optimistic that one day we will get back to in person teaching! Here’s some approaches I take.

Student choice: Giving students low risk opportunities to have some say in what happens in the learning environment gives them some of the power. It also shows them that you value their input and are listening to them. This helps to develop trust, which is ESSENTIAL if you want them to engage, communicate and participate. One strategy I picked up was to ask students to send me a song request (a youtube link for example) which I play at the beginning of the session (mine are recorded but this can also be done in a synchronous/live online session). I ask them to make sure the song request is clean (i.e. no swear words so that it’s not offensive).

Get to know your students and let them know something about you: Asking students to contribute to a Google Doc you’ve set up is a great way to find out stuff about them. This could be as simple as asking where they are from, do they have pets (ask them to include pics), what’s their favourite food etc. Then you can build this into the next session, and talk about the data, perhaps explain how it could be organised or how to visualise it. This is something I talked about in more detail in another post, which I found went down really well and had a high level of participation. You can also put stuff up about you, so the questions you ask your students, get them going by putting a picture up of your pet, or tell them what your favourite food is. It makes you come across as being more human (unless you’re an alien! :))

Gentle nudges: Often getting your students to engage with activities, especially like the ones in this post and others I have made, might be hard to get off the ground. I’ve found that giving your students gentle nudges helps to remind them that you’re interested in what they write (on a Google Doc or Google sheet for example, or in a group blog, or online class discussion) and you actually want to listen to them. This helps to build a mutual trust, which makes it much more likely for them to communicate with you and others in the class. 

Some of you may be asking, well what has all this got to do with learning about statistics? My students just want to be passive learners and sit there listening to me talk (whether this be on their laptops or in person lectures). The truth is, we live in a world where information is ubiquitous, students can find out information for themselves, they don’t need to sit there and listen for hours on end about stuff they can find out for free on the internet. Getting your students to engage with you and others in your classes is a really important first in creating a safe learning space, where they are encouraged to volunteer answers and not worry as much about getting things wrong. This will make them much more likely to engage with the actual course content you are delivering.

This post has outlined several tips to get your students to participate and engage with you, whether this be online or in person. By creating a safe learning space that encourages participation and engagement, this will help your students engage with the actual content in your courses and hopefully improve their (and your!) enjoyment as well!