4 Ways To Increase Student Talk Time Online

student talk time

Is Student Talk Time Even Possible Online?

Teachers talk too much. We know this. John Hattie (2012) found that “Teachers talk between 70 and 80 percent of class time”. My own experience observing classrooms reinforces the research.  “Stop talking” is my number one piece of feedback. (And, oh, how I wish someone had said this to me–actually, I wish many people had said this to me many times with great force so that I would have changed my own practice earlier and more often)

Why do we need to talk less?  We know the reasons.  The more students talk, the more they are engaged. 

It’s totally understandable that teachers talk a lot.  Teachers tell me they feel obligated to make sure students don’t miss anything, and TELLING them is the easiest/most efficient way to do that.  Some teachers tell me that they feel like that’s what they are paid to do–They worry that if an administrator walked in and didn’t see them telling/talking at the front of the room but “merely” walking around, it would look like they weren’t doing their job! (More on that in an upcoming post for principals!)

BUT, once teachers stop–or greatly reduce—their talk time, they are consistently amazed by what students are discovering and discussing on their own.

Of course, as the teacher, you are doing the heavy lifting behind the scenes–in how you set up the culture of your classroom and design learning experiences for students.  In many ways, the online forum that many of us find yourself in right now offers ways to hone your non-talking skills and shift the heavy work of learning onto your students.

Here are some tips.

Set Up Discussion Norms   

As you enter the school year, make norm setting one of your top priorities.  Have students reflect on what makes a good learning experience. Norms help set the WHY behind our behaviors with one another.  For example, with adults I often suggest this norm: “Step up/step down”  This asks those of us who tend to dominate the conversation to occasionally “step down” to give others space to talk AND it reminds those who prefer to keep to themselves to “step up” and share their thinking for the greater good. Students can remind themselves to step up and down, gently encourage others to do the same or you, as the facilitator can jump in verbally or–better yet–with an understood hand signal or written shorthand that brings others back to the norm.

Develop Accountable Student Talk Practices

Sure, our students know how to talk, but they don’t really know how to talk to each other. Learning to engage in meaningful dialogue is a skill that can be taught. My go-to resource is the work of Jeff Zwiers, who created accountable talk stems (and nifty placemats) to remind students how to respectfully disagree, build on others ideas and synthesize ideas in a conversation.  Zwiers and Crawford’s tool includes visual representations and hand gestures (such as pulling hands apart to ask a peer to elaborate). 

In a virtual environment, students could use the hand gestures or the class could create a shorthand for each conversation skill to use in the chat.

Use Breakout Rooms to Have Students Talk to Each Other

In a recent Twitter chat,  a teacher claimed that she wanted to use breakout rooms, but needed a way to see and monitor all students.  Well, as far as I know that’s not possible.  More importantly, it’s not necessary.  We don’t monitor our students when they meet in groups to complete projects out of school.  And, let’s face it, we can’t really “monitor” all of our students even when we are all physically in the same room.  So, just get over that.  If we’ve set up norms and created conditions for conversations, students can “monitor” themselves. 

What we can do is make sure each group has a meaningful activity to complete, understands the roles and responsibilities needed (timekeeper, recorder, facilitator, etc) and has learned how to engage in dialogue.

Then, we can drop in.  But, when we do, we MUST remain quiet. You’ve probably noticed that when the teacher joins the group–whether physically or online– there’s a tendency for students to stop speaking to each other and instead direct everything to the teacher for his or her approval.  You can pre-empt that by letting students know that you are dropping in on mute only.  What to do when there’s something you just HAVE TO address? See below. 

Use Chat to Make Your Comments 

When I teach my graduate course online, our sessions are only one hour–and we meet synchronously only every other week or so.  My students may meet more often in study groups depending on assignments and their relationships with one another, but our time together is still precious.  So, I’ve learned to devote the majority of our time to breakout and whole group discussions.  I’m a talker and I could see how much time I was taking away from my students.  I was using more than my allotted 6 minutes.  (How did I get that number?  I have 9 students this summer semester.  We have a 60 minute class. 60 minutes divided by 10 people=6 minutes apiece. Thus, I reason, each of us should have no more than 6 minutes total of speaking time.)

“But Lori”, you might be saying, “you are the teacher!  You have such wisdom to impart! You ask such insightful questions!  YOU deserve more time than a measly 6 minutes.”

Well, first, thank you for those kind words.  And yes, I do believe it’s my job to share what I can to help others make sense of readings and ideas and especially to ask questions that may move the discussion forward.  

So, I do that.  But I do it without talking.  I’ll add a comment or question in the chat. If I’m in a breakout room, I may leave the room immediately after commenting so that the group can use it or not, without having to bring me into the conversation. 

So, there you have it.  A few tips from someone who is constantly trying (and often failing) to step down, shut up and listen better.  

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