Dr. Catherine Rawn says student chitchat can actually be a good thing

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Talking in class is often frowned upon, but what if student chatter is actually beneficial?

Catherine Rawn, a senior instructor at UBC’s department of psychology, and Gillian Sandstrom, a recent PhD graduate, explore the topic in their latest paper “Embrace Chattering Students: They May Be Building Community and Interest in Your Class.”

The paper examines the experiences of 242 UBC undergraduates and was recently published in Teaching of Psychology.

As students and teachers prepare to go back to school, Rawn discusses the potential advantages of chatty students.

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Dr. Catherine Rawn

What’s the upside to student chatter?

In our study, we found that when students chatted more in class, they felt a greater sense of belonging. And the more they chatted, the more they liked the class.

Our findings don’t just apply to extroverts. How to accommodate introverts in a traditional classroom setting is a popular topic of conversation these days. Our data suggest the benefits weren’t just for people who spoke more than average in class. Getting people to speak above their own average was related to a boost in their belonging. So it’s not just about extroverts – boosting our introverts’ involvement predicts their sense of belonging too.

These results helped me to appreciate chatter in a different way. It’s related to positive things that I like to have in my class – rather than just being something that’s annoying.

How should teachers deal with in-class chatter?

Take a breath, don’t always assume it’s a negative and don’t overreact. I think there are different reasons why students chat. As a teacher, in-class talking can sometimes seem disrespectful. But it’s important to recognize that there actually might be benefits to chatter.

I recommend trying to build in opportunities to steer the discussion that’s going to happen anyway. There’s a huge amount of scholarly literature showing how discussion and peer-to-peer interactions help students learn. Our paper adds to this conversation – it shows there’s this belonging component.

As a teacher, if you can structure the experience so students talk to each other about something you want them to talk about, that can boost learning and perhaps belonging at the same time.

When is chatter beneficial, and when is it disruptive?

I think for any individual instructor it could be a bit of both. If chatter is happening out of an inability to control the class, there may be increased belonging, but it also might interfere with student learning.

It comes back to trying to structure the chatter and build in opportunities for students to talk to each other. One of the examples we give in the paper is to think about those moments we all have when technology fails, or something else doesn’t go right. As instructors, we sometimes just need a minute to collect our thoughts and decide what to do next.

My advice in those situations is to ask the students to talk to each other – for example, introduce yourself to someone new who’s sitting around you, or talk about the last thing we were doing in class. Talk about questions they may have, or give them a task.

That takes the pressure off of you if you’re dealing with a technology failure that you’re trying to fix. It can also help build community – and in doing so it might actually help repurpose that time in a productive way.

This story originally appeared on UBC News.