By Christian Loeffler
Students may be familiar with the “pause of desperation” in class, where a professor scans the classroom for responses among a group of particularly passive students, who avoid making eye contact with the professor through any means necessary.
Grace Noel, senior bioinformatics major, certainly is.
“[In] one of my classes, a teacher just did long pauses and it would just really get awkward for five minutes,” she said. “This person would literally wait for someone to say something. He wouldn't go on with class.”
Noel, along with assistant professor of communication Melinda Farrington and communication department chair and associate professor Jessica Harvey tackled the question of why this classroom phenomenon occurs.
"One of the reasons I don't answer questions is because I feel like what I have to say is stupid or not relevant,” Noel explained.
The other reason, she said, is that “you feel like you talked too much.”
"You don't want to keep answering questions because then it becomes a conversation between you and the professor when it should be the professor and the whole class," she said.
Jessica Harvey said she has had a similar experience as a student herself.
“I got nervous about it and I didn't like talking up in front of everyone, so I rarely spoke,” Harvey explained.
Like Noel, Harvey also acknowledged the fear of “feeling stupid” and answering too many questions in class, recognizing the mindfulness associated with letting others speak.
When she first came to Saint Vincent to interview for a position, Harvey said various faculty told her that the students were really quiet at first.
“[That] has been my experience compared to other colleges where I've been," she said, but suggested that it’s not solely due to shyness.
“‘I don't know’ is an okay answer; it's why we go to school. Every moment doesn't have to be filled with words and answers and questions. We're allowed to pause and sit with our own thoughts.” - Melinda Farrington
She instead suggested that students have more etiquette and kindness; that students like to let others speak.
In Harvey’s eight years as a professor at Saint Vincent, she said that she has not seen participation drop.
“What I do feel like I have seen over the years is a drop in reading – like students actually prepared for class,” stated Harvey.
According to Harvey, unpreparedness may be linked to use of media, since students have more opportunities to be distracted by technology because “it's all around them.”
When she taught Introduction to Mass Media, students would be surprised by the amount of time people spent on various forms of media, such as social media, video games, and Netflix, she said.
Melinda Farrington noted that communication practices are always evolving and thinks it’s a matter of how professors engage with students in the classroom rather than a decline in student engagement over the years.
“It’s a little more complicated than their participating more or less – it’s different,” she said.
In regard to silence in the classroom, Farrington humorously whispered “I think that's okay.”
Farrington said those quiet moments allow for students to pause and grapple with ideas and perhaps be a little uncomfortable, or become more comfortable with not understanding.
“‘I don't know’ is an okay answer – it's why we go to school. Every moment doesn't have to be filled with words and answers and questions. We're allowed to pause and sit with our own thoughts,” Farrington explained.
To Farrington, the responsibility of student focus is not just on teachers trying to engage a class, but students also on students, who are responsible for training themselves to stay focused for long periods of time.
“In one of my classes, we spend the first part of class every Friday reading for about ten minutes,” Farrington said, since it helps get students focused and in the right mindset for learning.
“I know in one of our marketing books for our capstone class, we were reading about how the attention span of a goldfish is nine seconds and the attention span of humans is eight,” she noted.
Noel shared her ideas effective of and ineffective ways of engaging students.
She first explained that professors should be careful in fishing for answers when asking a question.
“Once people start talking, they realize ‘oh, what I have to say is important, so people have to listen to what I have to say.’” - Grace Noel
“If a professor asks really inane questions like ‘what is this color’ or when teachers ask questions that are staring you right in the face on the PowerPoint, it feels like it is belittling your own intelligence to answer those questions,” Noel said.
However, she said, long and drawn out questions can be equally bad.
She also criticized participation grades.
“I'm kind of shy so I don't like it when [participation is] made part of your grade because then I feel like I have to say something, [and] I never say what I want to say because I am forced to do it,” Noel said. “It’s better if it comes naturally.”
Noel advocates the use of class polls through the website Kahoot in STEM classes and explained that shy people are more easily able to voice opinions through this method. In humanities classes, she enjoys large discussion circles where everyone must speak at the beginning, as it warms up the conversation.
Noel said she also favors small group discussions in all classes where answers are team-based and collaborative.
“Once people start talking, they realize ‘oh, what I have to say is important, so people have to listen to what I have to say,’” said Noel.