In discussion-based classroom settings, whether in undergraduate classes we end up teaching one day or in graduate classes we participate in today, we must be careful and hold ourselves accountable for ensuring an atmosphere of inclusivity, community, and trust. From experience in a wide variety of discussion-based classes, I think this is best accomplished by encouraging a balance in participation across students. Those students who appear to be disinterested in discussion and who contribute very little may in fact be itching to share their ideas, but may find it difficult to do so among a sea of other students. It may be the case that other, more vocal students interpret a lull in conversation, no matter how brief, as their chance to stir things up and get the conversation going again. But we often make the mistake of confusing their verbosity for their value. In reality, the quietest students also have compelling opinions and input to offer, but also have the hardest time stepping up to speak. But we often make the mistake of confusing their silence for their indifference.
The moral of this story, from a student’s perspective, is to spend time and consideration into the types of people surrounding you. Be respectful and aware of other peoples’ insecurities and encourage them to contribute to the conversation, especially if you’ve noticed yourself doing most of the talking. As one of the quieter students, it’s also your responsibility to assert yourself when necessary, because everyone’s voice is valuable and deserves to be heard.
As the professor, I believe it’s important to have a conversation about these dynamics openly, and early on in the course. Give students the chance to self-reflect, realize which type of contributor they are, and moderate themselves. From there, it is the professor’s duty to facilitate discussion, but also to monitor the speakers, and occasionally, to step in. The larger the class size, the more challenging this becomes. But it also becomes more important as well.