Hearing Silent Voices: Diversity in Seminars and Group Work

Victoria Jack, explores why students might be reluctant to contribute to groups and how we might address this



Teaching staff often report frustration at student reticence to participate in seminars/group work or that these interactions are frequently dominated by a small number of students.  The aims of this article are: (i) to present an insight into the reticent student experience with reference to findings from current research projects associated with International and Intercultural Communication (IIC) courses run by The Centre for English Language Teaching; and (ii) to present an approach to seminar/group work which could serve to address this issue.

Overseas students attending IIC courses express a strong desire to participate in seminars/group work but report a sometimes overwhelming frustration at their failure to do so.  They consistently provide the following explanations for their reticence.

  1. Fear of making grammatical or lexical errors
  2. Affective factors regarding the “native speaker”
    a) Fear of being judged as inferior intellectuals if their English is not “native speaker” in style
    b) Inability to “fight against” the dominance of native speaker student argument
  3. Lack of native speaker conversation strategies ie interrupting, expressing strong disagreement
  4. Fear of a lack of understanding of subtle points made through use of idiomatic language or cultural references

The lack of confidence that these students experience in seminar/group work is clearly a barrier, not only to their own learning, but also to the potential knowledge the more confident students could gain from hearing other ideas and experiences

.  Shy Bold Switch Means Choose Fear Or Courage

Insights into the reticent student experience

The fear of making mistakes (the first explanation for reticence) is a known phenomenon (Woodrow 2006, Liu 2006) and could be said to stem from an English language education which –  because of the apparent need to assess and grade students through examination of fine points of grammar or vocabulary –  generally focuses on accuracy to the detriment of fluency.  The IELTS exam, which universities use to judge English language ability, is similarly accuracy-focussed and, therefore, those international students with a high enough IELTS score to enter the University have been trained to focus on their mistakes.  This seems to serve as a gag when these students attempt to participate in seminar/group work activities where fluency is valued.

Affective factors regarding the native speaker (explanations 2-4 above) would seem to indicate that the confident ‘native speaker’ occupies a position of linguistic and cultural superiority  in the minds of these students.  The reasons for this are far beyond the limitations of this article; however, it may be worth considering whether that superiority is implicit in the nature of some seminar/whole class discussion activities.  This raises several questions

  • Is the way in which the more dominant students express themselves or communicate with the facilitator somehow demonstrative of a tacit superiority belief?
  • Does the facilitator, by responding to this dominance with extended interaction, somehow emphasise and confirm its existence?
  • Or does the facilitator make it clear that everyone’s contribution, regardless of the style it is presented in or the cultural background it refers to, is valid, welcomed, celebrated or, at the very least, considered?

Finally, awareness of what some scholars (Crystal, 2003; Graddol, 2006; Nickerson, 2005; Seidlhofer 2000, 2001; Skapinker, 2007a, 2007b) in the field of intercultural communication have alluded to as “The Native Speaker Problem” may provide an understanding of the issues outlined in points 3 and 4.  This refers to the argument that native speakers, even when participating in intercultural interactions continue to make cultural references and use idiomatic language and vocabulary or sentence structure which is complex or obscure. (Sweeny & Hua, 2010).

In addition to all the above points, the influence of the seminar/classroom environment itself may also be an element worthy of consideration.  The work of Littlewood (2000) focusses on the beliefs of international students about the authority of the teacher and the flow of knowledge which seem to suggest that the classroom environment itself may represent a barrier to the equal participation of students.  Basically speaking, it could be the case that if there is a classroom full of students with a “teacher” at the front, this may be sufficient to discourage some students from contributing.

Addressing the Issue

The evidence around the five points above would seem to indicates that a holistic approach to teaching small groups is appropriate:  it cannot just be a case of “fixing” the students who do not participate.  Rather, it is perhaps necessary to consider all aspects of, and stakeholders in, this scenario.

Firstly, since this is the teacher’s (facilitator’s) domain, it could be considered to be her/his job to address these issues and initiate changes in the classroom (Bond 2003, Cleveland-Jones et. al. 2001, Curro & McTaggart  2003), The facilitator must develop strategies to create an environment of trust and a supportive learning community within the classroom (Baier, 1986; Lee, 2007; Robinson and Kakela, 2006; ).  There may be the need to spend some time at the beginning of the course to encourage the establishment and later maintenance of effective working relationships between students in group situations.  The facilitator may also need to adopt techniques to encourage information sharing at pair or small group level before moving on to larger group discussions and to ensure all students have a level of competence as successful group participants.  Departments could develop a means of assessing these skills, even if only at a formative level, and incorporate them into student and teacher handbooks.

The students themselves can be encouraged to take responsibility for the success of group interaction, in addition to the management of their own contributions.  They could perhaps be encouraged to participate in pre-seminar study groups to ensure that the subject knowledge and background has been built up and discussed prior to participation in the seminar situation. This would therefore ensure that the group discussion in the presence of the tutor could serve its purpose to further construct knowledge with an “expert” on hand to direct and enhance this process.

More dominant students may benefit from developing awareness of other students’ experiences in group work and be given an opportunity to reflect on their skill as communicators, sharers of knowledge and team members.  This may serve to improve their performance, not only in student-to-student interactions, both social and academic, but also perhaps in future employment.  The development of effective cross cultural communicative competence is highly valued by employers across industries and national boundaries. (British Council, 2013)

The development of cross cultural communication skills would similarly be of benefit to the less confident students.  The opportunity to share experiences or at least to reflect on the issues they face in seminar and group work situations has proved extremely valuable for students in IIC classes.  They report that simply identifying and sharing issues served as a catalyst for change and encouraged them to consider how to address problems of confidence which they had previously felt to be insurmountable.  Through their IIC experience, they were able to develop communication strategies and improve generally as communicators both in and outside the classroom.

By recognising the issue of “the reticent student problem” as one that all stakeholders in the academic environment are responsible for, strategies emerge which could serve to ensure that the seminar situation is one of the rare opportunities in the University setting allowing for a real opportunity for the shared construction of knowledge with diverse participant voices.


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  • Bond, S. (2003). Engaging educators: Bringing the world into the classroom: Guidelines for practice. Ottawa, ON: Canadian Bureau for International Education.
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  • Sweeny,E.& Hua,Z.,(2010), Accommodating TowardsYour Audience:Do Native Speakers of English Know How to Accommodate Their Communication Strategies Toward Non-native Speakers of English, Journal of Business Communication, October 2010 vol. 47 no. 4477-504.
  • Woodrow, L (2006), Anxiety and Speaking English as a Second Language, RELC Journal 2006 37: 308, DOI: 10.1177/0033688206071315

A8_Jack-bioVictoria Co-ordinates the Open Access programme in the Centre for English Language Teaching (CELT).  Her interests lie in the internationalisation of Higher Education and training teachers for international education.  Please contact Victoria (victoria.jack@york.ac.uk) to discuss how CELT can help improve internationalisation in your lectures, seminars, courses and/or department.

Victoria Jack will be facilitating a workshop during the Learning and Teaching Conference 2015 entitled Hearing Everyone’s Voice:  Techniques for Ensuring All Students Participate in Seminars and Group Work.  The workshop aims to offer the opportunity to experience an inclusive approach to seminar work which works towards ensuring all students have equal opportunities to contribute in seminar and group work.  During the workshops, participants will be integrated with a mix of home and international students and will gain first hand experience of seminar leading methodology which develops an atmosphere of trust and ensures more active participation of all group members regardless of their background.

One thought on “Hearing Silent Voices: Diversity in Seminars and Group Work

  1. Pingback: L&T Session A – Giving everyone a voice ­ All students in small groups want to say something | York Learning & Teaching Forum

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