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HealthJuly 26, 2021

Encouraging student participation in an online setting: the power of silence

By: Christie Cavallo, MSN, RN, EdDc, CNE, CNEcl
Are your students quiet in your classroom? Do you sometimes feel all alone in your Zoom or Google classroom? Have you ever asked your students a question only to answer it for them in your next breath?

These challenges are not unique and are felt by many educators in virtual learning environments. Let's look at an inquiry framework and how to best encourage student participation in an online or even blended setting using the power of silence.

A community of inquiry framework is a model of learning practices in an online or a blended environment. It’s the compilation of a teaching presence (you), social presence (students), and cognitive presence (say what?). The first two elements we often understand, but what fosters cognitive presence? Cognitive presence is the extent to which learners can create meaning through sustained reflection and discourse, i.e., talking with one another and with us. So, back to the beginning of how does that happen if students aren’t answering or participating? They need silence.

The value of silence in teaching

Silence is the absence of sound, but it also carries a second definition according to Oxford Languages- “to prohibit or prevent from speaking.” So, are we silencing our students by not being silent? Are we not giving them an opportunity to create meaning from what we have asked them to do? Silence is uncomfortable. Think about the last time you asked your students a question in class. Five seconds of silence can definitely feel like an eternity.

I’ve been so convicted of my students not participating and of me answering the question for them that I’ve thought of five purposeful ways that I can give them needed silence time:

5 ways to use silence while teaching online

  1. Take a sip of water. Keep a bottle of water with you when you teach. Ask a question or display it on their virtual “board,” then take a big sip or two of water and swallow. This will keep you quiet for at least five to 10 seconds while the students can read the question, get up the nerve to answer, and unmute or raise their hand. It’s simple, and it really works.
  2. Use poll response software. Pick an app or program such as Kahootz or Poll Everywhere and use it to ask questions. The students can answer using their phone, tablet, or computer. The reason I include this in my recommendations is that these tools have a timer. So, after the question is displayed during that countdown of 20 seconds, I must wait before I click and show the answers. Brilliant!
  3. Get a timer. Grab a timer from the dollar store. There are two-minute sand timers available and cooking timers that wind up to any amount of time you want. You can also try a digital racing timer that you can hang around your neck. This can be an easy, visible reminder to give your students moments of silence after asking a question.
  4. Mute yourself. I don’t know about you, but I’m still teaching by Zoom. The silence feels incredibly tempting to interrupt virtually. The mute feature is a great function that takes time to turn off and on - ask a question and then mute yourself. It is also visible to your students and indicates it’s their time to speak up.
  5. Utilize PowerPoint. Instead of verbally asking the questions (and answering them), put the questions on a five- to 10-page PowerPoint slide presentation and send the slides to the students by email. Give the students five minutes to answer them, come back together, and ask for volunteers to answer each question. This takes us out of the equation and gives them quiet time to read and think about the answers.

The goal of creating a community of inquiry in your class is to build a solid foundation of social presence and teaching presence to stimulate cognitive presence in a course. These “presences” work best when they are equal in presentation. So, we must make sure that we, as educators, do not overshadow the other two when we are teaching.

Learn how Lippincott CoursePoint combines trusted content, tested technology, in-depth reporting, and an intuitive platform design to prepare nursing students for practice.

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Christie Cavallo, MSN, RN, EdDc, CNE, CNEcl
Expert Insights Contributor for Wolters Kluwer, Nursing Education
Lippincott® Nursing Education
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