Getting the quiet students to talk helps everyone

Often the quiet students have the most insightful ideas but won’t share them for fear of speaking in public. Here are some tips on building their confidence and voice

David  Cheng's avatar
30 Jun 2022
bookmark plus
  • Top of page
  • Main text
  • More on this topic
Helping quiet students find their voice will benefit the entre university class

Created in partnership with

Created in partnership with

Australian National University

You may also like

Say my name: the importance of correct terms, titles and pronunciation
Advice on handling individuals' names with respect to create an inclusive learning environment

In our classrooms today there are large groups of quiet students. These students may be shy, disengaged or distracted, and these things make them reluctant to contribute. Yet they may also be the smartest people in the room or the most caring and helpful. Getting them to contribute not only helps students learn, it also builds confidence, friendships and good mental health. But how do we get them to speak up and engage with us and their peers?

Why don’t they just talk? 

Sometimes it’s hard for us teachers to relate to the quiet students. After all, we talk to groups of people for a living. Even if we are introverts, it doesn’t take too many classes for us to realise that it does get easier and we are happy to talk to groups when needed. But therein lies the problem. Quiet students often only talk when they need to and they generally don’t feel they are really needed. So how do we help overcome this issue?

  1. Don’t just know their name, know who they are

We’ve all been asked by somebody who doesn’t really know us for something valuable. We know they don’t care about us; they just want our “thing”. That’s how it feels for some of our students, when we want them to speak but we don’t know their name or anything about them. Knowing the student’s name and using it is the first step to showing we value them and their opinions. Going one step further, we should try to get to know them. This can be done by chatting to them before and after class. It can also be done by asking them to tell you something during the “get to know you” sessions early in the semester and then referring to this when you have conversations with them.

  1. Build a platform for your students to speak

When you show the quiet students that you know and value them, you can then start building a platform for them to speak. They will often share with you privately a perspective or insight into class material that would be valuable to the class. Having built up their trust, you can then ask them for permission to share their ideas or even announce to the class that said student has a valuable insight. This builds confidence in the student that their comments will be valued and needed by their peers and encourages them to speak up and share their thoughts.

  1. Bring them up front in a group when they are ready

A valuable tool for improving the voice of quiet students is a fishbowl panel discussion. This involves the class watching a discussion happening between a small panel in front of the class. When you feel some of your quiet students are ready, pick one or two and mix them with other students in a fishbowl panel. Pick a topic that you know they can all talk about, but leave one space on the panel empty. Anytime a student from the audience wishes to contribute they can join the panel in the empty seat and one student who has spoken must leave the panel. This gives quiet students the opportunity to join the panel and to speak up front [MD1] when they wish, and stops loud students from dominating discussions as they rotate in and out of the panel. Quiet students appreciate the opportunity to speak when they desire and to be valued for their opinion, but also not to be forced in front of the class for prolonged periods of time.

  1. Use a reciprocity ring

To strengthen relationships and build rapport among students use a reciprocity ring. This involves students making requests for help on a board or spreadsheet (for virtual classes) and other students responding with help. Requests for help need not be related to class. For example, students can ask each other where to find the best food/clothes/music of their preference or for help navigating some aspect of student life. Using a reciprocity ring helps students get to know each other beyond the usual first-class icebreaker, and the help they give each other builds trust and value among their fellow students. Quiet students often appreciate being able to interact with others beyond just talking, and louder students often get to appreciate quieter students who they might not normally interact with.

David Cheng is senior lecturer in the Research School of Management at the Australian National University.

If you found this interesting and want advice and insight from academics and university staff delivered direct to your inbox each week, sign up for the THE Campus newsletter.


You may also like

sticky sign up

Register for free

and unlock a host of features on the THE site