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A Study of Quiet Students

By Kim Marshall

The article: “Silent Students and the Patterns of Their Participation in Classroom Talk” by Klara Sedova and Jana Navratilova in The Journal of the Learning Sciences, September-December 2020 (Vol. 29, #4-5, pp. 681-716); the authors can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected]

In this Journal of the Learning Sciences article, Klara Sedova and Jana Navratilova (Masaryk University) report on their study of students who don’t raise their hands during whole-class discussions.

The researchers’ working assumptions were that when students talk in class (versus the teacher doing all of the talking), more learning takes place, and students who don’t participate learn less because they’re not as cognitively engaged. Which students speak most in class?

Previous research, say Sedova and Navratilova, has found that “higher participation rates are typically found in high-achieving students, students from families with higher socioeconomic status, extroverted students, cognitively strong students, and motivated students.”

But this is not always true. The way teachers orchestrate class discussions, as well as student-to-student dynamics, can influence patterns of participation.

It’s often assumed that students who are silent in class are low achievers who want to avoid making mistakes and failing. It’s not that simple, say Sedova and Navratilova. By observing ninth-grade language arts classes in the Czech Republic, studying classroom videos, and interviewing teachers and students, they found that some of the silent students were low achievers and some were doing well.

Interviews revealed that both groups had a common feature: they felt uneasy about speaking in front of others and did not raise their hands to volunteer. Additional findings:

• Teachers called on high-achieving silent students quite a lot, often asking challenging questions. Those students’ answers were above average in length and elaboration, and there were often prolonged interactions with the teacher. But most of high-achieving silent students’ learning took place at home and in solo studying and reading. 

• Teachers rarely called on low-achieving silent students, partly because these students seldom answered, and partly out of a desire to avoid setting them up for embarrassment and failure. When teachers did call on low-achieving silent students, they asked easy-to-answer, low-level questions. Teachers wanted to get these students participating, but didn’t want to throw questions at them that would cause negative social and academic consequences.

• When high-achieving silent students spoke, classmates listened; when low-achieving silent students were called on, other students raised their hands to answer the teachers’ questions. 

• High-achieving silent students participated only if they believed they had better answers than classmates. That meant they didn’t participate in exploratory classroom talks, which limited their learning opportunities – but they compensated with independent study. The result was that speaking less in class had no negative consequences for them.

• “High-achieving silent students use silence to gain power,” say Sedova and Navratilova. “Through participation in difficult tasks, they build and consolidate their identity as exceptionally capable students in the eyes of the whole class. Even when they are silent, the others think they know the answer.” These students avoided appearing over-eager and weren’t regarded as the “teacher’s pet,” reinforcing their popularity with peers.

• Low-achieving silent students had a quadruple disadvantage: (a) by not volunteering in class discussions, they didn’t get the benefits of greater cognitive engagement; (b) teachers calling on them less often, and asking easy questions, prevented them from improving their understanding of the subject matter; (c) because these students weren’t grappling with challenging questions (or participating in exploratory discussions), they didn’t receive important corrective feedback from teachers; and (d) this day-by-day dynamic reinforced their negative academic identity – and continuing low achievement. 

• Sedova and Navratilova noticed that a few teachers were successful at engaging low-achieving silent students, changing the typical pattern of reticence and failure. This can happen when teachers “sensitively evaluate the signals coming from these students. It is necessary to identify the moment when the silent student has a spontaneous urge to participate and to create space for that student’s contribution in the classroom – calm the other students, give the silent student focused attention, and ask contingent questions. It is vital to let low-achieving silent students succeed, even in cases when their utterances are not absolutely correct or elaborated. For teachers, this means to show their interest in what these students say instead of only evaluate the answer as such. For once low-achieving silent students succeed, the echo effect can start to work – the students might increase their initiative and the teachers allow themselves to call on them more often.”

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