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You know that thing where you’re talking to a group of people and you ask them a question and no one answers?

And you wait a few more seconds, awkwardly, and nothing happens?

It’s one of those funny little problems faced by a lot of teachers, coaches, speakers, ministers, pretty much anyone who speaks in front of groups: The speaker says something, hoping for a response from students or an audience, and what they most often get back are a couple of weak smiles, a grunt or two, and not much more. Basically, crickets.

It’s mildly uncomfortable for everyone, both the speaker and the audience, but thankfully, the moment passes quickly and it’s no big deal.

Still, it’s a fixable problem.

Why It Happens 

Getting the silent treatment from a group you’re speaking to happens most of the time for one basic reason: People don’t want to look stupid. Within that broad umbrella of not wanting to look dumb, here are some more specific possible causes of your cricket problem:

More Effective Ways to Increase Audience Participation

Here are some better ways to get your students—or your audience if you’re speaking outside of a classroom—to participate more.

1. Explain what kind of response you want.

Sometimes audiences freeze up when you ask a question because they aren’t sure what kind of response you want, if any. So the more specific you are with your expectations, the better they will be at giving you what you want. For example, you could say, “In a minute, I’m going to ask a question. What I want you to do first is think quietly about your answer. Then I’m going to ask for three volunteers to share their answer with the group.” Specific instructions like that will put your audience more at ease, and they’ll be more likely to give you good responses.

2. Ask for a show of hands.

As long as you’re asking about something people won’t be embarrassed to admit and that at least some people in your audience will probably say “yes” to, this is a way to start a conversation. So rather than say, “How was everyone’s weekend?” you could say, “How many people watched a sporting event this weekend?” From there, you can go to one of the people who raised their hands, ask them what they watched, and you’re off and running. 

3. Ask one person a direct question.

We established earlier that everyone in your audience knows you’re not speaking only to them, so when you throw out a question to the room, individual people aren’t likely to move the spotlight to themselves. But if you go to one person directly and ask them a question, they have to respond. So instead of saying, “What did you think of that movie we watched yesterday?”, go to the kid in the third row and say, “Hey Paulie, what did you think about that movie?” Now Paulie could probably just shrug this question off or say, “It was alright,” so if you want to get a better response, try something like, “Tell me something about that movie that made an impression on you.”

4. Have everyone write down a response first.

When you ask a group a question, usually only one or two people will respond. This robs everyone else of the opportunity to answer. If this happens over and over again in the same group, many participants won’t even think about their own response, because they’ll know one of the more talkative people is going to answer anyway. One way to solve this problem is to have everyone write down a repsonse to the question first, then call on a few people to share what they wrote. This way, even if the room only hears a few responses, everyone actually reflected on and answered the question. And when you give everyone time to process in this way, you’re likely to get more and different volunteers than if you just ask the room cold; that’s because some students need more processing time before they feel confident enough to share their thoughts. In their book, Total Participation Techniques (see the end of this post), Persida and William Himmele tackle this problem with dozens of strategies that get every student in the room participating. 

5. Do a think-pair-share.

Instead of having everyone write an answer, you could instead just have them turn to a partner and respond to them. This can be useful for meaty, content-heavy questions, where participants are processing something they’ve learned, or just your basic conversational ones. Try it: The next time you’re about to say “How’s everyone doing?” to a large group, instead, tell them to turn to a partner and answer the same question. If someone in the room is having a crap day, this may be the first opportunity they’ve had to actually share that with someone and maybe feel a little bit better as a result.

6. Do a better check for understanding.

If you regularly ask “Is that clear?” or “Does everyone understand?” you probably already know that this doesn’t always tell you who needs more help. Instead, give participants tools to let you know when they are confused: You could ask everyone to give you a thumbs-up or thumbs-down signal to indicate whether they’re getting what you’re saying or hold up colored response cards that can serve as answers to a multiple-choice question. Finally, as we mentioned in a previous post called Let’s Give Our Teaching Language a Makeover, simply switching from “Are there any questions?” to “What questions do you have?” tends to get many more people to actually ask questions.

 

Bottom line: If you feel like you’re doing all the talking up there, and you want to get more from the people listening to you, you might just need to make a few small changes to your delivery to turn a one-way lecture to a much better conversation.


Recommended Reading

 
 

Persida and William Himmele have established themselves as experts in getting all students to participate in class. Their book, Total Participation Techniques, offers 51 alternatives to traditional “stand and deliver” teaching, many of which will be useful to any speaker in any setting.


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6 Comments

  1. Frank Lyman says:

    Right, classroom discourse should not be a version of Jeopardy. All response should be processed/rehearsed in the mind first. Think time is the sine qua non of all conversation. I would add that the students can be taught to recognize the type of question being asked and the teacher can translate the question down to the basic mind actions needed to answer the question. When asked to analyze, summarize, compare, hypothesize, evaluate,generalize, students need a metacognitive sense of how their minds work to answer the questions. Otherwise the long silences and the poor quality of the answers will continue. Once students understand and can use seven types of thinking, they can not only respond more effectively to questions, they can craft their own questions and run their own discussions. I am referring to the ThinkTrix typology. As the initiator of Think Pair Share I can say that the metacognitive ally of ThinkTrix is crucial to inclusive discussion. You can see more about the typology and its uses in a book published by Kagan ThinkTrix:Tools to Teach 7 Essential Thinking Skills… All this being said I think what you are proposing to teachers in this segment is what they need to know. If they don’t pay attention to what you have written, some will leave the profession earlier. Frank Lyman

    • Great stuff! There’s also a classic study on wait time. It showed that after asking a class a question, most of us wait less than a second. Increasing that to 5 seconds increases hands raised, questions posed without prompting, etc. Thanks for your wonderful blog. Roben Torosyan, Bridgewater State University (Mass.)

  2. Dennis Ryan says:

    One of my school requirements is that all students participate. Technology has solved that problem for me. There are several programs that allow for student participation, some are games others are straight forward question-answer solutions.

    I use PearDeck for multiple reasons. (I do not receive any benefit from PearDeck.) This Google addon allows me to insert question slides at any point in my slides presentation. Each student is required to respond. I am able to see all responses (with student names) on my desk top or lap top computer. I am able to select any number of answers and project them using the video projector — these answers are without student names. This lends itself to a class discussion on selecting the best components to arrive at a “best” answer. This is also a good time to bring in the “think-pair-share” collaboration to arrive at a best answer and provide justification. This also gives me a good idea of where the students are in the learning process.
    Another feature that I use frequently with low-stakes formative assessments is to collect the individual PearDeck answers and download them into a spreadsheet. I merge the spreadsheet with a mail merge and provide each student with an email that 1) gives the question, 2) gives the student answer, 3) provides the student a score and best of all 4) provides the student with the components that are expected with a fully correct answer. This feedback allows each student to see what they need to do the give a better answer — metacognition for everyone. Many of the formative assessment questions are used on the summative assessment — higher stakes of course.

    • Katrice Quitter says:

      Dennis,
      Thank you for sharing a solution that you’ve found to work for your students in the classroom!

  3. I loved you when said maybe someone in the class in intimidating and it might be you! Also, I think what you said about they might think everyone else gets it and be afraid to speak up and express that they don’t. Great suggestion for how to overcome the crickets!

  4. Melissa Jackson says:

    Seriously great information for teachers, coaches or anyone who speaks to groups of any size, all in a short podcast. I’ve changed my thumbs up/thumbs down to thumbs up for “I understand” and thumbs sideways for “I kind of get it”….even if they really don’t kind of get it, it seems to be less insulting and still tells me what I need to know.

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