Thursday, May 13, 2021

Saying something stupid - giving students time to think

Photo by Felicia Buitenwerf on Unsplash

How often do you wish you could delete something you said or at least get a chance to reformulate it? I do almost every day. In conversations and meetings we often make spontaneous comments that were not well formulated or even thought through. In discussion forums I sometimes edit something I wrote in haste, or I write a new statement showing that I have revised my idea. However, in spoken communication or indeed on Twitter it's hard to edit or retract. Once it's out there a remark can fly off into circulation - as many indiscreet celebrities and politicians can confirm. As a result, many people are reluctant to speak in meetings (physical or digital) in fear of saying something that may come back to haunt them in the future. Fear of revealing your vulnerability, that you don't really understand the topic yet and are fumbling for clarity.

Learning is all about changing your mind. New information and arguments mean that we are constantly reforming and refining our opinions. Curiously the media tend to attack politicians who change their mind about an issue seeing it as a sign of weakness instead of realising that we are constantly changing our opinion as new facts and ideas are assimilated. Of course we have very fixed basic principles of what is right and wrong but the rest is flexible. Changing your opinion is a sign that you are learning and can listen to other arguments.

So how can we work with this in teaching? I think it's important to give students time to refine their ideas before they go into a class discussion. If you ask a question in class you are often met with silence. They all have answers but they're not ready to share them yet. If you want a good discussion you need to let them formulate and refine their ideas first in a secure setting. In an online class for example, this can be done by asking everyone to take a pen and paper, turn off cameras and microphones and spend, say, five minutes to write down responses to a question you ask. Then put them in pairs where each partner explains their answer uninterrupted for a couple of minutes and then they briefly discuss these answers. When the class is back together again they can all share their answers anonymously using a polling tool like Mentimeter or AnswerGarden. The ideas have now been refined through pair discussion but it's good to let them appear without names. Then the variety of responses can be the basis of larger group discussions where the group can formulate a new answer that is more mature. Finally we can start a class discussion where the fear of saying something "stupid" has been reduced significantly. This process can also be prepared asynchronously before the online meeting and then letting them discuss in pairs or small groups so that they all have something to contribute to the class discussion.

The main point is to build a foundation for discussion rather than plunging straight in. If we allow for a period of silence before expecting any answers there is a greater chance that more people will contribute. We can't always use the method I explained above but when you ask a question in a meeting or class tell people to think about it for even a couple of minutes before inviting answers. More thoughtful answers are worth a couple of minutes of awkward silence.


Soon after publishing this post I came across a very relevant article by Nikole D. Patson on the same theme: Collaborative Note-taking as an Alternative to Recording Online Sessions.


  1. Recommend to read this articles about pluralistic ignorans...

    Kay, R. H., & LeSage, A. (2009). Examining the benefits and challenges of using audience response systems: A review of the literature. Computers & Education, 53, 819–827.

    Kelly, K.G. (2009) Student Response Systems (“Clickers”) in the Psychology Classroom:

    A Beginner’s Guide. Office of Teaching Resources in Psychology. Från

    Keough, S.M. (2012). Clickers in the Classroom : A Review and a Replication. Journal of Management Education 36(6) 822–847. DOI: 10.1177/1052562912454808

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